Thursday, December 02, 2010

Award-Winning Chains Exquisitely Engineered

(Image from Indiebound)

I've read plenty of books about slavery, but none as powerful as Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. What makes the story so compelling? Perhaps it stands out because of its unique time period or because of the subtlety with which Anderson weaves the tale of a young girl's fight for freedom with America's own struggle for independence. Or it could be the simple fact that I can no longer read stories like these without picturing my daughter. What would her fate have been, with her milk chocolate skin and tight black curls, in an age of absolute intolerance toward anyone with even a drop of African blood? The mere thought is enough to send ice through my veins. For all these reasons and more, Chains swallowed me whole, ravished my insides, then spat me back out, desperate for more. It's not an easy read, not at all. It is troubling, touching, illuminating and very, very worthwhile.

The story opens with the death of Miss Mary Finch, a passing that both saddens and cheers 13-year-old Isabel. Although her mistress was kind, the slave girl can't wait to be her own boss lady. But before she's allowed to get even a taste of the freedom Miss Finch promised her, Isabel finds herself sold to the highest bidder. Along with her younger sister, Ruth, Isabel sails from Rhode Island to New York, where she becomes a servant in a grand house on Wall Street. Her new owners, the Locktons, are proud and wealthy Loyalists, disdainful of American rebels and slaves who dare use their tongues for anything other than licking the boots of their betters. Isabel's determined to keep her head down, avoiding her cruel mistress whenever possible. It's only when Madam does the unthinkable that Isabel puts up a fight. And is violently punished for her efforts.

Although Isabel cares little for the mounting conflict between the British and the Americans, aiding the Locktons' enemies gives her some small satisfaction. Not only is she fighting back against her hateful owners, but selling their secrets means winning favor with Patriot bigwigs who she hopes will repay her with freedom. Plus, she owes Curzon, the slave boy who once saved her life. Spying is a risky business for anyone, let alone a slave girl whose fate lies at the hands of an already malicious mistress. While the American Revolution explodes around her, Isabel must fight with everything she has - for her freedom, for her sister, for her life.

Every book I've ever read about slavery in America took place during the Civil War era. Somehow, I never even thought about the practice existing 100 years earlier. Anderson dissolved my ignorance with exhaustive research and painstaking detail, painting a heartrending portrait of early American slavery. The irony of a group of people risking life and limb for independence but refusing to grant it to others snakes through the story, bringing home the astounding hypocrisy embraced by so many people throughout the history of our young country. Anderson's message blares loud and clear, although it flows delicately through tight prose, vivid detail, and memorable characters. Although the author takes her time telling the tale, Chains offers a story that's enthralling, empathetic and exquisitely engineered. Historical fiction at its absolute best, this important book is not to be missed.

(Readalikes: Day of Tears by Julius Lester; Black Angels by Linda Beatrice Brown; Numbering All the Bones by Ann Rinaldi; Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson [sequel to Chains])

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for depictions of cruelty, racism and war-related violence

To the FTC, with love: I bought Chains with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

5 comments:

  1. Sounds like another book I will have to borrow :)

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  2. Yes! I adored this book. If you're looking for more Revolutionary War slavery books, definitely check out the Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (two volumes) by M.T. Anderson. It is also very good.

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  3. Excellent review of what sounds like a worthy read!

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  4. I have always loved Laurie Halse Anderson... I glanced this over earlier this week but didn't give it any pause- after reading your review, I may go back & grab it.

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  5. I loved this book. I just finished the next one, "Forge". It was equally as good as "Chains".

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