Yes, she could hurt me. She’d already done so. But what was one more beating? A flogging, even? I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could no longer harm Ruth, and she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her.
(from Chains, page 247)
Chains is the first book in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of America series set during the Revolutionary War. The novel follows 13-year-old Isabel, a slave denied the freedom promised to her and her younger sister, Ruth, when their owner died. The girls are sold to a Loyalist couple, the Locktons, and taken to New York City shortly before it is invaded by the British in 1776.
Isabel is determined to secure their freedom, and she foolishly believes a fellow slave, Curzon, when he tells her that his master would be able to help in exchange for information about the Locktons’ involvement in plots against General Washington and his troops. When Ruth is sold and shipped to the West Indies, Isabel finds herself locked in a battle with the cruel Madame Lockton — a war as fierce as the one being fought between the Patriots and the British and every bit as deadly.
Anderson’s novel is geared toward middle-grade readers, but there is much for adults to admire as well. The passages from relevant historical documents at the beginning of every chapter were informative and paved the way for further research. Anderson doesn’t sugar-coat the cruelties of slavery and war, but she doesn’t go overboard with graphic descriptions either. The punishment inflicted on Isabel at the request of Madame Lockton is horrific, yet it emphasizes Isabel’s status as property and makes her evolution into a strong young woman who reclaims her scar for herself all the more satisfying.
Chains is a novel rich in historical detail, from the confusing plight of slaves in choosing sides to the vivid description of the fire that tore through the city, leaving hundreds homeless as winter approached, and the deplorable conditions endured by the Rebel prisoners after the invasion. Anderson brilliantly tells the story in the first person point of view of Isabel, which not only lets readers get to know and care about her but also allows for an objective portrayal of both the Americans and the British, neither of which were the “good guys” when it came to the treatment of slaves. Isabel’s strength carries the book forward at a brisk pace, making it somewhat disappointing when this installment ends without a satisfying sense of resolution. But that’s okay because the second book in the series, Forge, is waiting patiently in my to-read stack. I can’t wait to see where Anderson takes Isabel next.
Disclosure: I borrowed Chains from my local library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.