As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight... for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.
From acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.
~Print copy (library), 300 pages
Published: 2008 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Yes, I saw Laurie Halse Anderson's name and picked this up. I am a fan of her Speak and Wintergirls, as well.
And, also... well, I do like psychological, kidnap/slave/people-as-property stories, where the protagonist emerges from that situation and deals with the aftereffects. Which sounds wrong, but I swear, I don't get off on suffering -- I just enjoy observing psychological effects. And stories where I'm really punched in the gut by the protag's suffering. It keeps the mind empathetic.
Chains, in essence, is a historical fiction, of course, not a psychological horror/thriller story. But as I read through, I loved the metaphor, the easily-grasped way of looking at the psychology. Isabel, a slave from Rhode Island whose owner's will granted her freedom, is taken anyways to New York, where she and her sister are sold to -- well, really, the only bidders.
Through the beginnings of the war -- the signing of the Declaration of Independence, through the British occupation, to a great fire in New York City during this time -- Isabel wants nothing to do with it. All she knows are the newspaper stories, as her last owner had taught her to read, and the oppression under the Locktons.
I don't doubt that Isabel would've considered the Locktons' treatment of her to be normal. Completely UN-oppressive. IF it hadn't been for the way Madam Lockton treated Ruth.
Because, you see, Ruth is described as simple-minded. She's five years old, has fits/seizures, and from what I gather, can't say much. Madam Lockton thinks she's possessed by the Devil, and the little girl ends up crying and in the kitchen.
Isabel, when serving Sir Lockton in his library with some of his Loyalist companions, stands in the corner and cannot help overhearing details of Loyalist plans. Because she is just a slave, and has no ears at all as far as the men are concerned.
Curzon, a slave under a Patriot, offers her a chance in a lifetime to help the Patriots by passing such information on: the Patriots will track down that lawyer with her late owner's will, giving her freedom. Freedom to go back to Rhode Island, where her mother is buried. Freedom to leave the beatings, the cold, the rags, and the humiliation of serving the Locktons. And best yet, the freedom for Ruth not to be beaten.
The characterization of this novel really brings the convoluted American Revolution to life. Even though, yes, I'm American, and I'm glad I have liberty and freedom and all that, the plight of these two slave girls -- even if they're fictional -- brings home the complicated philosophy behind an event in American history I don't pay much mind to.
There is, first of all, the issue of slavery at all. The North, contrary to some people's beliefs, DID have slavery. Despite getting riled up over liberty and equality, slavery still held strong. and the British, on the other side, weren't fond of giving these colonists liberty and equality, but they did offer some slaves their freedom, on the condition they help the British.
Except, of course, the British only offer that deal to the slaves of Patriots, to sort of undermine their economy. Slaves were still property of their owners, and there are several parts of this book where Isabel -- though clearly in the right, or at least the understandable -- is still punished for defying the Locktons, once by being branded in the face with a letter I.
And what's a really, really good part of this novel for me? There is no romance. Curzon is a friend, who helps save her life, and she's indebted to him -- but they don't fall in love. It's so rare for me to find such a book, one without romance or romantic subplots or tropes. I feel a little lighter, knowing that not all my precious YA books are filled with romance, romance, romance.
What else? ... Did I make my opinion of Isabel clear? She's a pretty strong girl. She bears the weight of lifetimes on her shoulders, and still gets up every morning for a day of hard, back-breaking work. Her suffering, repeatedly, is referred to as "ashes" and "bees" under her skin, choking her throat, buzzing in her brain and pushing her thoughts out. She is and should be, by all rights, miserable. (I won't name specifics. Read the book.) But it doesn't leave her
It's not just her strength to stand up, though. It's her strength to stand up for her freedom. Like I mentioned, she got branded in the face for her "insolence." She visits the prison where hundreds/thousands of rebel soldiers were captured and imprisoned, to feed them scraps and "conversate," as she puts it. (Did I mention voice? This has unique antiquated-American dialect here, but not enough to make the book obscure or difficult to read.) Madam could have her sold, beaten, branded, or hung on a whim, if she finds out.
Even the ending -- a part of the novel I usually dislike -- was pretty good. I didn't realize it had a sequel until pretty much the last page (Forge), but it didn't just, like, let off. It ended with enough closure to satisfy me.
Overall, while it's not catch-my-spark material (It's not Doctor Who, Artemis Fowl, and Harry Potter all rolled into one), it is a lovely read. I enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good, unique, strong voice, with no romance and good setting. 4 stars.