Chains bind body, soul, mind

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson; published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2008; 316 pages.

In the Spring of 1776, Isabel walks with her 5 year old sister, Ruth, alongside the wagon hauling a casket in rural Rhode Island.  As the casket is buried, so is her hope of freedom.  The greedy nephew of Miss Mary Finch, who was an enlightened slave owner, ignores his aunt’s wishes of freedom for the sisters.  He quickly sells them to the Locktons, wealthy Tories living in New York City.  The Locktons are elitists, loyalists and conspirators against the rebel Americans.  Isabel’s life is miserable servitude, punctuated by cruel punishments at the hand of Anne Lockton.  Mrs. Lockton is so unstable, she sells sweet little Ruth after discovering the child is epileptic.  Desperate to claim her freedom and find Ruth, Isabel seeks to serve first the British, then the Americans.  Even though her services prove invaluable, she is lied to and used by everyone around her.  Within the Locktons household, she discovers too late that she had a champion, Mr. Lockton’s aunt, but she is dying.  Isabel knows that, with Lady Seymour’s death, she will be sold.  Her only true friend, Curzon, is a slave boy working quietly for the Revolutionists.  Loyalty to Curzon adds suspense to a daring escape which ends the book.  When, oh when, is the sequel to be published!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to confess a couple of things before I review this book.  First, I am an ardent fan of Laurie Halse Anderson.  Second, historical fiction is my weakness.  Last, Colonial America and the American Revolution, in all its glorious and inglorious humanity, is my favorite point in history.  Now, with all my prejudices in the open, I have to say this book took my breath away.  The depth of sorrow and strength of human nature are compellingly presented from the viewpoint of a young girl, an educated slave.  Often, Anderson’s coined words pull on the reader’s chain to remind us that we are observing the revolution through a young girl’s eyes.  Also, Anderson artfully uses period semantics without being heavy handed or plodding.  The use of counterpoint subtly underlines the dissonance of the slave’s life–as when Isabel is in the stockades, Anderson juxtaposes dandelions growing in the mud against the horror of being branded.

In a more tangible way, the historic setting of the novel is built into the physical book.  The pages are rough and uneven; the fonts are reminiscent of the period; and the last page of the book (not including the afterword) looks like a slave auction handbill.  Anderson also begins each chapter with a quote from newspapers and other primary documents of the era, including correspondence between Abigail and John Adams.  In addition to the remarkable view of the days before and after the Declaration of Independence provided by Isabel’s story, Anderson’s appendix includes historical facts she uncovered in her research.  As a whole, this book is an unequaled teaching tool about slavery, revolution and what it meant to be American at the birth of a nation.

When, oh when, will the sequel, Forge, be published!

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 6-12

Cover art: The use of dark, earthy colors in the fonts and art juxtaposed against a pale blue background is visually appealing.  The art, which uses the book’s title as bondage against a silhouette figure of a slave girl, is interesting.  But putting it all together, along with the hint of the Colonial era in the added symbols, tell the story so well that you can tell this book by its cover.  Will the cover appeal to teens?  Well, I was at a school book fair, and this was the most popular book sold (in October 2009).  I don’t know if it was the cover, the author or book talks that sold this one.

From the Reading Lists: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) and The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)


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