I have read many books by Laurie Halse Anderson. I was introduced to her novels when I read Speak over a decade ago. (I still maintain that it is her best contemporary YA novel. The others just never seem to match up.) She truly has an interesting gift for historical fiction, though. Her novel, Fever 1793, was a good read and thoroughly enjoyed by the students I’ve recommended it to over the years.
I picked up Chains for the simple reason that I needed something to suggest to my gifted students that had something to do with their social studies curriculum. I wanted something that would challenge them, but still be accessible to them in terms of plot and character identification. What I got out of this novel was exactly what I was looking for. Since my first read, I purchased 23 copies for my class and the majority of my students have finished reading it, as well. I am working on compiling the novel study questions I wrote as we went along and hope to add to it when my next class reads it next year.
In a tiny nutshell, the story is about a girl named Isabel who is born and raised a slave in Revolutionary War-era New York. Her life is a series of tragic events-along the way she is sold to a horrible Loyalist couple, her sister is sent/sold away, she is demeaned verbally and is beaten and branded as punishment. Throughout the course of the story, there are flickers of hope for her future based on her ability to read (unheard of!) and her spectacular memory for detail. I admit that these two helpful characteristics may or may not be realistic in terms of history, however, Isabel’s placement in a Loyalist home with these particular skills creates an interesting subplot of spying and political intrigue. Isabel willingly puts herself in harm’s way in order to spy for the rebels and finds herself in a quandary when she can’t decide if either side-Loyalist or rebel-will treat her better when the war is over. Her clear-eyed view of reality is in stark contrast to her friend Curzon, who believes everything his rebel owner tells him. The story ends with an opening into the sequel, Forge, which follows Isabel and Curzon as they seek Isabel’s sister, Ruth.
I enjoyed this book as an adult reader. What has been MOST interesting for me, though, is the variety of conversations I have had with my fifth graders about the story and the realities of life for slaves in that time period. It seems that a large portion of the historical/historical fiction from this era shifts more towards the Civil War time period. The Revolutionary War time frame gave them a whole new perspective on the roles of rebels, citizens, military, slaves and immigrants in our fledgling nation. My students have really appreciated the “kid” perspective of the story and have had some fascinating questions about what Isabel’s life would have really been like.
I would recommend this book to upper elementary and middle school students-especially in conjunction with historical studies of this time period. I would suggest reading the story along with-or before-your child so that you can answer questions about all of the material presented in the novel.