“Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at my face, my kerchief, my shift neatly tucked into my shirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel” (Anderson 2008, p. 134)
“I prayed that Colonel Regan was there. I prayed he would fall ill and die a terrible death for lying to me and betraying me and letting them break my body. Whenever I heard the words ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom,’ I wanted to spit in the dust” (Anderson 2008, p. 158).
Of all the books I’ve read so far this semester, this is perhaps my favorite. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but this novel gripped me from the very first page and did not let me go until the very end. Even after, I found myself immediately wanting to pick up the sequel and keep going, though realistically I won’t have time to do so until after this semester is over (one of the joys of graduate school). I’ve always been a fan of Anderson’s work (I absolutely loved Fever 1793 and Speak), and this book certainly lives up to the very high standards I’ve set for her in my mind.
Chains centers around a young slave girl named Isabel living during the American Revolution. At the beginning of the story, Isabel and her younger sister Ruth have just been set free by their master, a kind woman named Mary Finch. Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, Miss Finch has recently passed away, leaving them at the mercy of her cruel nephew. Ignoring his aunt’s wishes, the new master sells the girls to a man by the name of Mr. Lockton, a Loyalist from New York. Once in New York, Isabel finds herself immediately swept up in the brewing conflict between Loyalists and Patriots, delivering secret messages to Curzon, a young slave boy who soon becomes her first and only friend. It is through her secret duties as a spy for the Patriots that Isabel learns a harsh lesson: “freedom” and “liberty” are ideals not always awarded equally.
As I say with many of the books I review on this blog, I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this one. From the very beginning, the novel intrigues its audience with a moving, thrilling story, one with new twists and turns on every page. Even though this story is told through the eyes of a slave girl in 1776, I found myself drawn to her, immediately invested in her plight and rooting for her to succeed. At the same time, I found myself cursing “Madam,” Isabel’s cruel new mistress throughout the novel. Anderson is a master of getting her readers to care about the characters, making them both believable and sympathetic.
While this book focuses on the plights of everyday citizens during the Revolutionary War, it never feels like reading a textbook about the time period. Sure, there are excerpts from real historic documents at the beginning of each chapter, but these serve more as added details than they do critical plot points. The story is, first and foremost, a story of a little girl fighting to earn her freedom; the Revolutionary War simply provides an exciting backdrop to the main story. What intrigued me the most about this story was Anderson’s ability to make me truly think about ideas such as “freedom” and “liberty.”
In the Declaration of Independence (cited on page 270 in the novel), it states that “all men are created equal.” As we quickly learn throughout the story, however, all men were not created equal in the eyes of slave-owners (or even still today). Many times throughout the novel, Isabel finds herself slighted, ignored, or forgotten after being promised her freedom, even though she provides invaluable assistance to the Patriots. She goes as far as risking her own life to deliver information for the taste of freedom, only to be forced to help herself in the end. Curzon, too, is given the short end of the stick, left to rot in prison after becoming a Patriot soldier and aiding in the fight.
One cannot even list on both hands the number of injustices in this book alone, providing an extremely realistic picture of what life must have been like for slaves caught in the middle of the conflict during this time period. No matter which side they chose, they were still confined to slavery at the end of the day, something that not many people think about when they consider the American Revolution. Perhaps the greatest irony of the Revolutionary War is that, while these men were fighting for their freedom from an oppressive government, they were totally content to enslave and imprison others simply for the color of their skin. To me, this makes a very powerful statement, one that I think is still relevant today.
Given today’s racially tense climate, I think it’s more important than ever that we choose not to forget the horrors of slavery, apartheid, and segregation. Our country has come a long way since the days of owning and selling our fellow human beings, but we have proven in the last year alone that we still have a very long way to go. Books like these are incredibly important, especially for children, as they remind new generations of the horrors that should never be repeated. I thought Anderson’s use of the Revolutionary War as a framing device for this issue was incredibly clever, as it reminds us that not all of us are entirely “free,” even today. It also reminds us that “freedom” and “liberty” are ideals, and they often come with a very hefty price. In Isabel’s world, freedom is not always free, especially for those who likely deserve it the most. It’s been said many times that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. I believe this novel is giving us that reminder in a very subtle manner, by giving us a glimpse of the past that many have already forgotten (or choose not to remember).
Regardless of whether or not this message will ever sink in, I’m grateful that this book exists, and I plan to read the rest of the series as soon as I am able. If you have even the slightest interest in historical fiction, or if you’re just interested in reading a riveting, pulse-pounding story of freedom and adventure, then you should definitely give this series a shot; I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Anderson, L. H. (2008). Chains. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.