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Book Notes: Chains

There are historical fiction books that feel like glorified textbooks, with the story functioning as the carrot to get you to learn your history. And then there are engrossing stories with historical settings that always feel like the backdrop; they never quite become three-dimensional.

And, then, there are stories like this.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Chains is a page-turner of a story. The main character Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves, sold to wealthy Loyalists in New York City just as the American Revolution is starting to generate heat. Having experienced the death of both her parents, Isabel has already shed any semblance of a childhood. She plays the role of mother and protector to Ruth, and tries to shield her from the critical glare of Mrs. Lockton, who is always looking for an excuse to insult or abuse the two girls.

Other characters – both Patriots and Loyalists – show some kindnesses to Isabel and Ruth, in particular Mr. Lockton’s aunt Lady Seymour, who tells Isabel that she’d wanted to buy her from her nephew’s household. Through Isabel’s eyes these clumsy kindnesses are disappointing. “I tried to be grateful but could not,” she says. “A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.” The only friend that Isabel has is Curzon, a slave who is convinced that fighting side by side with the Patriots will secure his own freedom. Isabel is less wiling to tie her chances for freedom or survival to anyone else.

The characters are rich and compelling, and the story is fast-paced. But, Halse Anderson does not skimp on historical details. She creates a richly detailed and fascinating world, and brings its nuances alive through the politics, geography, events, and people of the time. Even the cadences of the characters’ speech rang true in my mind’s ear. The historical setting and characteristics have a rich interplay with Isabel and her story, with the events of the war and the city affecting Isabel’s prospects deeply. For example, the fire that ravages much of the city gives Isabel the chance to save Lady Seymour’s life, a fact which prompts the woman to protect the slave later in the story. However, it also forces Isabel back into the Lockton’s home, where she is again subjected to Mrs. Lockton’s cruelty. When the British take Fort Washington and force the rebel prisoners into a downtown prison, it brings Curzon back into the city, desperately in need of help. Isabel’s decision to come to his aid not only strengthens their bond, but also brings out Isabel’s boldness. She learns how to break the rules, a skill that comes in handy for her much later.

As the Americans fight to liberate themselves, so does Isabel. Her battle mirrors theirs in many ways, with its urgency, its low odds of success, and its grave setbacks.  After reading her story, I felt more intrigued by this time in our country’s history than ever before. Halse Anderson’s beautiful writing and Isabel’s urgent story are a compelling combination.

Her follow-up to this book Forge will be on sale next month, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

I finished reading Common Sense the night before the ball. The bookseller was right; the words were dangerous, every one of them. I ought throw it in the fire but could not bring myself to do it. Mr. Paine knew how to stir up the pot; he went right after the King and attacked the crown on his head…

‘Twas a wonder the book did not explode into flames in my hands.

-Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson