Like many Laurie Halse Anderson books, Chains often feels like a punch to the gut, but you also just can’t put the book down until you get to the end. This historical novel tells the story of Isabel, a young slave from Rhode Island in 1776. When her relatively kind mistress dies, Isabel knows that she and her younger sister are supposed to be freed by her mistress’ will—Isabel was taught to read, and she herself read the will to her mistress. However, the nephew of her mistress has no time for any of this and feels no need to track down the will. He sells Isabel and her 5 year old sister Ruth to a Loyalist couple travelling to their home in New York City.
In New York, Isabel struggles to survive and is caught between the Loyalists and the Patriots as the Revolutionary War begins. She just wants the freedom she and Ruth were promised, especially as the cruelty of her new mistress, Madam Lockton, becomes more evident. She becomes friends with Curzon, the slave boy of a notable Patriot. The book goes some very dark places, but it does end on a note of hope, leading right into the sequel, Forge.
Many stories about slaves take place on Southern plantations in the mid-1800s. This story reminds us of the fundamental role slavery played in the founding of our country and that the North and the people we think of as the “good guys” of the Revolutionary War played a significant role in establishing slavery as part of how things were done. In 1776, slaves made up 20% of the population of New York City, the second largest city in the colonies. At the end of my version of the book, the author answers questions about what’s fact and fiction, and the research that went into creating a realistic version of what was going on in New York in 1776. Each chapter starts with dates and quotes from historical documents, keeping the fictional story grounded in history.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Illness and Epilepsy
Ruth is what Isabel calls “simple.” She responds well to orders, but has a limited vocabulary and often gets distracted by things. As long as she’s compliant, Madam sees this cute quiet child as a novelty, dressing her in fancy clothes to wait upon her. However, Madam doesn’t hesitate to raise a hand to five year old Ruth when she speaks too loudly or makes a mistake.
Ruth has the falling sickness and occasionally has fits. Madam sees one of these fits and decides that Ruth is possessed by the devil. It’s clear that most people aren’t as superstitious as Madam—the Master thinks she’s overreacting and Ruth just needs some quiet time to recover from a fit before she gets back to work. But Madam is convinced that Ruth is possessed, and she goes to great lengths, including drugging Isabel with sleeping potion, to finally get rid of Ruth. She tells Isabel that Ruth has been sold to someone going to the West Indies, where Isabel will never find her (we later learn that Ruth has actually been shipped to their plantation in Charleston).
Violence, Injury, Death, and Tragedy
Isabel lives a terrifying life. She is well aware that she still lives at the whim of her mistress. The book is in first person, so we experience her fears, her depression, her hopes, the dashing of those hopes, etc. Her mistress slaps her several times across the face, hard enough to send her reeling. She is underfed, sleeps in horrible conditions, and the clothes she’s outgrown and worn out aren’t replaced.
When Isabel tries to run away after Ruth disappears, Madam tracks her down and beats her so severely that she’s unconscious for days. She suffers a severe concussion that continues to haunt her through the book. This beating happens in front of witnesses who do nothing to stop it, because Isabel is Madam’s property. Isabel is put on trial for defying her mistress and is of course found guilty. The punishment would typically be 20 lashes, but Madam requests that Isabel instead be branded with an “I” for “Insolence.” Isabel is placed in a stockade, and an “I” is branded onto her cheek.
Master Lockton abuses his wife. They frequently get into screaming battles that often become physical, with Madam throwing vases and dishes at Master, and Master grabbing and beating her. She dresses to cover the bruises and blames Isabel for leaving messes on the floor that cause Madam to fall and hit her face.
Curzon becomes a Patriot soldier—his master offered him freedom if the boy, not yet old enough to shave, would enlist in his place. The rebels are beaten quite soundly in the battles around New York, and Curzon returns as a prisoner. The conditions are horrible—freezing cold, with no blankets; very little food, most of it spoiled and maggoty; no fire for warmth or to cook pork, so many prisoners were eating raw pork; rampant illnesses left untreated. Tens of thousands of prisoners died in British custody. The stories Curzon tells of the war are horrific, including seeing a young man’s head blown off by a cannon.
A fire destroys much of New York, and the scenes and stories are intense and graphic, including details like the screams of horses trapped in burning stables. A huge storm results in several men being struck by lightning and most of them are killed; it’s brief, but a bit graphic. A man is hanged—we don’t see the actual hanging, but the scene leading up to it is pretty detailed.
People as Property
Part of what drives this idea home isn’t the way Madam treats her slaves—we know she’s awful. It’s how even sympathetic people won’t do anything to help Isabel because she legally belongs to Madam. They stand by while she’s beaten and branded, while her little sister is sold, while she’s locked in a potato bin overnight. They might all feel really bad about it, but they do nothing. Occasionally people do her small favors to help make her a little more comfortable (Madam’s aunt buys Isabel some warmer clothes and shoes that fit, a sympathetic woman gives her a blanket and chamber pot while she’s locked in the potato bin) but it’s clear that Isabel and Ruth belong to Madam, who can treat them as she wishes.
What seems to get the most people upset is the idea of selling children. Slavery is fine, but don’t sell kids.
Curzon is in prison with a lot of free white men. One of them vocally thinks that Curzon shouldn’t get food or blankets or anything unless all the white men have their needs met. The fact that Curzon fought with them and took a bullet for their cause means nothing to him—he’s a slave and should get less than the rest of them.
There are no clear cut good and bad guys in this book. Even Madam, who is awful, is made slightly sympathetic by a husband who beats her. Master seems a monster in many ways, but he also is reasonable about Ruth’s epilepsy and some other things. Isabel does some spying for both sides of the war, hoping to gain some allies to help in her escape. Instead she is betrayed at every turn, usually because in the end they won’t help a slave leave her rightful owner. There are calls for liberty and freedom, but obviously not for the black people. The British offer freedom to slaves of Patriots (at least in theory—apparently it wasn’t always so clear cut) but not to the slaves of Loyalists. Almost everyone is willing to use Isabel to further their cause, but in the end no one will look out for her.
God and Faith
Isabel believes in ghosts and hopes that the ghosts of her parents will look out for her and Ruth. Ghosts aren’t scary to her, and she tries to find them to get guidance from them. Isabel prays to God and has always gone to church with whoever owned her at the time. When things get really bad, she stops praying for a time. However, at Christmas she manages to turn around some of her depression. She decides to use her half day off to keep Christmas, which to her means baking bread pudding and getting cleaned up. She takes the bread pudding to Canvastown—the hovel in the burnt out ruins of New York City where the poor live. She finally prays again, without words, and feels some measure of peace return to her. She gives the bread pudding to a poor family she doesn’t know.
Isabel frequently feels hopeless, especially when she’s been beaten severely and can hardly think straight. She refers to the feeling as being full of bees, and sometimes they want to rise up and sting things. But slowly she begins to brush the bees away, and plans start to fill in the gaps. She realizes that Madam can hurt her body, but can’t touch her spirit if Isabel doesn’t let her. She finds ways to help Curzon, she devises a plan to find Ruth. No matter how much she wants to stop worrying about other people, she finds she has to be true to herself, which means not abandoning others, no matter how often she herself has been abandoned. In the end, she declares that the “I” seared into her face stands for “Isabel” instead of “Insolence.” She will wear it like a country mark, a mark of her people. Hope comes mostly from within, from finding the strength to keep going.
She starts the book as Isabel Finch, but Madam declares that’s a ridiculous name and she is now Sal Lockton. The sympathetic aunt always calls her Isabel, however. In public, Isabel must call herself Sal, but she never does accept Lockton—she’s Just Sal to some. To Curzon the city boy, she’s always “Country.” When she forges a pass so she can escape, she renames herself Isabel Gardner and considers that day her new birthday. Names carry some weight.
It’s not an easy read, but it’s compelling and informative. Despite Isabel’s very hard life, it’s in many ways more hopeful and less death-filled than many similar books. People aren’t killed gratuitously. It’s suitable for about 10 and up, and chances are good your kid will want to discuss how realistic it is—so be prepared to do a little historical research!