Friday, October 3, 2008

Book Review: Chains

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. (Grades 5+)

The year is 1776. Isabel is a slave and her mistress, Miss Mary Finch, has just died. Although Miss Mary had written in her will that upon her death Isabel and her sister Ruth would be free, the document is nowhere to be found. So Isabel and Ruth are sold to the Locktons in New York.

The Locktons are Loyalists, supporting King George as the colonies teeter on the brink of the Revolutionary War. When Isabel arrives, she is approached by a young slave named Curzon who tells her that if she spies on Mr. Lockton and the meetings he has in his home, the rebel forces will ensure that she and her sister get safe passage back home to Rhode Island.

Isabel is in a unique position to spy on her master. She's as good as invisible to the gentlemen as she stands there waiting to serve them. And she'll do anything to procure freedom for herself and her sister. But it's not quite as easy as Isabel had hoped it would be. She'll come to realize that she needs to find her own path and seize her own destiny if she's ever to break these chains.

A unique book told from a first-person point of view, Chains really pulls the reader into the story. Of course I knew about slavery before reading this book, but Chains really brings the horrors of slavery to life and, perhaps for the first time, I feel like I really got it. Add to this the fact that most historical novels about slavery are set in or around the Civil War. The fact of the matter is that there were slaves in the American colonies. Lots of them. And the revolutionaries fought a war for freedom, but not freedom for all people.

The storyline pulled me in at first and the writing drew me in even further. Anderson knows how to paint a picture of scenes and events so that you see them unfolding in front of your eyes. Take this passage from after Isabel's been approached by Curzon and is deciding whether to take information to him:

If I opened the gate, I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from a master. Anyone who caught me could take me to jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.

If I opened the gate, I might die of fright
. (pg 64)

I was completely pulled in by the story and the characters and I didn't want to put this book down. When I got to the end and found a to-be-continued, I was both dismayed and delighted. Dismayed because I want to know what happens next. I want to know right now. And delighted because Yay! There's going to be another book!!

So, yes. Be prepared for that. :)

I'm hearing Newbery buzz and Chains has already made Betsy's list of Newbery contenders. It's also listed on the Anokaberry, Anderson's Mock Newbery and the ACPL Mock Newbery.

If you're not reading it already, be aware that Laurie Halse Anderson has a blog. Check out Simon & Schuster's Behind the Book where Anderson explains why she wrote Chains.

Anderson writes:

In 1776, while the rhetoric of freedom and liberty was thick in the air of Boston, Providence, New York, Albany, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and Charleston, fully 20 percent of the population of the newly christened United American States -- one in five -- were owned as property and sold like cattle...

As I researched I began to hear my main character, Isabel, whispering to me. She was chained between two nations. The British promised freedom to any slave who fled to British lines, with one exception -- slaves owned by Loyalists would be returned to their owners. The Patriots talked a good game about freedom, but few were willing to extend that inalienable right to people of color.

is due out on October 21. Many thanks to The Picnic Basket for providing me a copy for review.

PS: Did I forget to mention the fabulous author's note? I did? Well. That is unacceptable. Anderson included an author's note that made my heart skip a beat. Lovely. :)