Isabel watched her owner sign the papers before she became sick. The paper that give Isabel and her little sister Ruth their freedom upon the death of their Miss Finch. So she is stunned when, at the funeral, Miss Finch’s nephew refuses to give the sisters their freedom, and instead sells them to the first people he meets. Isabel is horrified to find that she is being carted away from Rhode Island as the property of the Locktons, residents of New York.
The Locktons are Loyalists, a fact that Isabel dismisses as unimportant at first. She is far more concerned with her own freedom than with the theoretical freedom of the colonies. But then the American rebels offer her a chance at freedom if she spies on her owners. The risk is great, but Isabel is desperate. Her epileptic sister makes the already unpredictable Mrs. Lockton even more volatile. But the fate of slaves is a complicated one, for both the rebel army and the Loyalists. What does it mean to be fighting for freedom of your country when there are men and women who are enslaved?
There’s been a lot of buzz about Chains being a contender for the Newbery and other awards, and it is not hard to see why. The historical research done by Laurie Halse Anderson is detailed and wide-reaching. She manages to set the story very firmly in the time period without overwhelming the reader with irrelevant details or bogging down in a display of historical facts. The writing is excellent, the sort of writing that tricks readers into thinking that the writing process was effortless, when I am sure that the author labored hard to find the perfect phrase or word.
The characters are realistic as well. Isabel’s fierce loyalty towards her sister is clear. While I have heard some complaints that parts of the middle of the book are out of character, or that Isabel doesn’t change during these parts, I disagree. For much of these sections Isabel is in a state of stunned disbelief. She remains unchanging not for plot purposes but because it is the only emotional response of which she is capable. Historical fiction is populated with daring slave escapes, which might serve to blind the average reader to the fact that the vast majority of slaves were obviously NOT able to escape. With no way out of the situation, Isabel is essentially forced to turn herself off. The “bees” buzzing in her brain will only cause disaster. If she lets herself feel, she will destroy herself with her rage. It is only in small acts, little things that she repeatedly insists she’s going to stop doing or insists she doesn’t truly care about, that Isabel is able to reach out to the world, and, in doing so, free her own emotional growth.
All readers, both adult and child, will be surprised and appalled at the ways in which slaves were treated by both sides of the conflict. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Ms. Anderson talks about how there it was not a “good guy, bad guy” situation. Both sides did things that were not so wonderful, and we should acknowledge that. The novel as a whole is remarkable in its refusal to give a one-sided portrayal.