Wow! Once I started Chains, I could not put it down. Even when it was painful, and I wanted to put it down, I still couldn't put it down. Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is understandably a finalist for the National Book Award. [Updated to add: Chains did not win the National Book Award, but it did win the 2009 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.]
Chains is a historical novel aimed at middle grade readers (though I think it might be an even better fit for middle schoolers). It's a first-person account of eight months in the life of a thirteen-year-old slave girl named Isabel during the Revolutionary War. Chains gives readers an in-depth perspective on slavery, a nuanced view of the Revolutionary War, and a snapshot of day-to-day life in the 1700s, all as background for the compelling story of one girl's struggle for freedom.
The historical detail in this book is multi-layered and fascinating. Each chapter begins with a brief excerpt from a historical document relevant to the content, from well-known proclamations to obscure newspaper ads. What stands out in particular about Chains is that much of the history is not that which is conventionally remembered. Chains looks at slavery in Rhode Island and New York, rather than the South. Much of the book takes place in a British-occupied New York City in 1776. Several of the characters are British loyalists, and Chains explores the divided nature of the Colonists during the war. It's easy now to picture the brave Patriots fighting against the better-equipped, better-trained British soldiers. What Chains shows is that it wasn't quite so clear-cut at the time, especially for the slaves.
Yes, the context is remarkable. But what made Chains resonate for me was Isabel. Her voice is utterly captivating. Not only did I feel like she was real, sometimes I felt like I was her. I am truly blown away that the same author who gave us Melinda from Speak and Tyler from Twisted could get so thoroughly inside Isabel's head. I mean, I know that's what great writers do, but these characters are light years apart.
It's a tricky thing to write in the first-person voice of a slave girl, with limited education, who lived more than 200 years ago, while keeping the book accessible to modern-day readers. I think that Laurie Anderson pulls it off. Isabel has been educated beyond her station by a previous forward-thinking master, and her quick intelligence is obvious from the first page. This lends plausibility to her relatively correct speech. Only occasionally does the author slide in some dialect - just enough to feel authentic, without making the book hard to read.
Here are a few examples of Isabel's voice:
I let my eyelids droop as if I were a'dozing." (Page 91)
"The next week passed in a kitchenstorm of flour and sugar, for Christmas was fast approaching... I was the dogsbody in charge of keeping the oven stoked with wood and the ashes cleared out, fetching forgotten ingredients from the market, and beating eggs, ten at a time, till my arm was near to fall off." (Page 233)
"Christmas at home had meant eating Momma's bread pudding with maple syrup and nutmeg, and reading the gospel of Matthew out loud whilst Ruth played in Momma's lap. I was miles away from celebrating like that. I tried to bury the remembery, but it kept floating to the top of my mind like a cork in a stormy sea, and foolish tears spilled over." (Page 243)
Chains is not an easy read, emotionally. Terrible things happen to Isabel, things that aren't fair. Things that are painful to read about. Chains takes the reader inside the pain of slavery, showing what it feels like to be owned, to be powerless, to be treated like less than a person. Here's an early example:
"The words tasted bitter. Being loyal to the ones who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step." (Page 39)
But although this inside view of slavery is difficult to read about, the rewards of this novel are immense. And that's largely because of Isabel. She is brave, resourceful, smart, and loyal. If you are anything like me, you won't be able to stop reading, because you won't want to leave her in the lurch.
I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, home of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. I remember studying the war in fourth grade, and attending the battle reenactment on the town green on April 19th. I wonder how much deeper my understanding would have been if I had been able to read a book like Chains at the time. Fortunately, kids today will have that chance. Chains has my very highest recommendation, for kids and adults. It is a triumph. I am very much looking forward to the next volume of the story, Forge.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Publication Date: October 21, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Bookends, Sarah Miller, The Reading Zone, Reading Rants!, Abby (the) Librarian, Becky's Book Reviews, A Fuse #8 Production
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.