Chains
Laurie Halse Anderson
2008
National Book Award Finalist
Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Chains is interesting and worth reading. Set in New York City at the dawn of the American Revolution, Chains follows 13-year-old Isabel and her 5-year-old sister Ruth as they are sold to a very harsh mistress of a British sympathizer despite hopes of freedom upon the death of their former mistress.

Throughout the novel, Isabel must figure out who she can trust: America or England. Neither the rebels nor the redcoats are very helpful to her, and her closest friend is a young black boy named Curzon. Curzon’s master is a rebel leader, and Curzon has joined up himself. Chains shows us very clearly that there is no easy answer in war and that even our heroes may have owned slaves or not known how to navigate those troubled waters between freedom for all and freedom for some. We also see throughout the novel that hardship stalks everyone during war-time, that promises are hard to keep, that it’s hard to know the right choice.

The novel ends abruptly, leaving those who are fans of Isabel desperate for book 2! This is the first book of a short series about Isabel and Curzon. I think this book can stand alone, but the adventures clearly continue.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that it’s not another slave narrative about the American south set during the 19th century. Instead, we see another angle on the slave experience in American history, and we also see some new angles to the Revolution. Anderson provides little snippets of newspaper articles or letters from the time period that are also fascinating to read (letters from folks such as John or Abigail Adams and the like); these appear at the beginning of the short chapters. Anderson seems to have done her research well.

Recommended for middle school and up

Things to Note/Discuss

  • Is slavery ever okay? Can you have a “good” master and a “bad” master? How do Mrs. Lockton and her sister-in-law differ in their treatment of Isabel? Should Mrs. Lockton’s sister-in-law intervened despite the law?
  • How do you decide who to trust? Is it okay to betray someone for the good of the country? Do you have to keep all of your promises?
  • Would you have brought food to the prisoners?
  • Is it ever okay to lie?
  • Does this book make you want to learn more about the American Revolution, especially the “behind-the-scenes” parts? Do you have a better understanding of such men as George Washington?
  • Did you know there were slaves in the North? Did you know they suffered harsh treatment like the Southern slaves?
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