I picked up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson because in my quest to read a few Cybils books, I have realized that it’s downright difficult, if not impossible, to lay my hands on many of the 2010 nominees. When I realized that Chains won in the middle grade fiction category for the 2009 Cybils, I knew I’d probably enjoy it. I loved Anderson’s Fever 1793 (linked to my review), and I love historical fiction. I was right–I loved it!
Chains is the story of a black slave girl, Isabel, and her little sister, Ruth. When the story opens, Isabel and Ruth are on their way to their owner’s funeral. Their situation in life goes from bad but endurable (slaves of a caring owner, from all indications) to horrible in just a few days. They are sold to a New York merchant and go to work in his household, Isabel as a house servant and Ruth as a personal slave for the mistress of the house. This story provides a different look at the American Revolution. I don’t typically even think about the city of New York when I think about the Revolution (which probably just shows my ignorance about the subject), but if this book is accurate in the least (and I do believe it to be well researched), New York saw a good bit of activity. Isabel is simply interested in freeing herself and Ruth and making it back to their home in Rhode Island, and she is willing to do just about anything and work for just about anybody in order to do that.
I enjoy Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing style. Here’s a short excerpt that typifies what I enjoy so much about her style:
I rowed that river.
I rowed that river like it was a horse delivering me from the Devil.
My hands blistered, the blisters popped, they re-formed and popped again. I rowed with my hands slick with blood. My back, my shoulders, my arms, they pulled with the strength of a thousand armloads of firewood split and carried, of water buckets toted for miles, of the burdens of every New York day and New York night boiled into two miles of water that I was going to cross.
Isabel is one determined girl!
More than simply a girl-power book, this book brings to light the troubling issue of slavery and the founding of our nation. It is a work juvenile fiction, although I believe that teens and adults can enjoy it, too. I would recommend it for older elementary-aged students and up because of the brutal nature of some of the punishments inflicted upon slaves.
Chains has a blockbuster of a cliffhanger ending but thankfully, its sequel, Forge, was recently released. I hope I can do better with this new series than I usually do and read it soon enough that I actually remember the story.
In addition to being a Cybils winner in 2009, Chains also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction that same year. I definitely think Laurie Halse Anderson is an author to remember for great stories (both fiction and nonfiction) about history.