Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Chains

Laurie Halse Anderson
2008; Simon & Schuster; 978-1-4169-0585-1 (hardback)

Summary: As a slave, Isabel has no rights, no options. She has to accept being tricked out of her promised freedom. She has to accept being sold to Loyalists and moved to New York. And worst of all, she has to accept being separated from her little sister. What can one slave do to change her life, in the middle of the Patriot rebellion against King George III?

Three Things to Know about Chains

#1: See the American Revolution in a different way.

Choosing to set her novel in Revolutionary War-era New York City pays off for Laurie Halse Anderson. By giving us a different perspective on the American Revolution, eyes are opened to the reality of this climactic struggle: no one knew who was going to win. In fact, during the years of 1776-1777 when Chains is set, the smart money was on the British to crush the rebellion. When writing historical fiction, an author has to counter the knowledge the reader brings and pull them into the story, so the reader forgets what they already know. Anderson achieves this feat.

#2: Slaves weren't just involved in the Civil War.

As Anderson notes at the end of the novel, nearly twenty percent of the population of New York in 1771 was African-American. So often, the issue of slavery is examined in the context of the Civil War. Yet slaves played a large role in American life, throughout the colonies and the states, before the Civil War was even considered. What Isabel suffers--separation from her family, trickery and abuse from whites--is not unique to her story. And while Isabel is able to gain her freedom at the end of the book, her fellow slaves would have to wait decades for release from slavery.

#3: Spies could be everywhere.

Against her better judgment, Isabel performs acts of espionage, passing information to the Patriots about Loyalist plots. As a slave, she's ignored while her master talks with other Loyalists about a plot to assassinate George Washington and plans to bribe Patriot soldiers. Yet when a Patriot colonel doesn't live through on his promise to help her in exchange for her information, Isabel stops her out-and-out spying. She tries to stay out of this tug-of-war between the sides. But gradually, she begins to perform less dramatic spy work: passing messages, doing errands, helping people like her friend Curzon and the prisoner of war Captain Morse. By the end of the novel, these actions, along with other events, have helped prepare Isabel so she can undertake the most risky mission of all: gaining her freedom.

Chains is an engaging middle-grade novel about a historical period that might seem well-covered at first glance. Yet the choice of setting and narrator lift it above the pack. For readers not ambitious enough to tackle The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party, this novel does much to introduce similar ideas.

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