National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2008), Scott O’Dell Award (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fiction (2009), An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Older Readers (2009), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2011) …more
Laurie Halse Anderson is not a writer I had read before this book. The book was recommended to me by a young reader in one of my English classes. Since it was the 4th of July that day, and since I don’t know an awful lot about the Revolutionary War for American Independence, I thought I would give it a go.
‘Chains’ is the story of Isabel (13) and Ruth (5), slaves to Miss Mary Finch, 1776. Isabel narrates the story, with an intelligent, observant and challenging voice. At the beginning of the book we are at the funeral of Miss Mary Finch, with the Pastor and Mr Robert Finch, Mary’s nephew.
[Mr Robert] had showed up a few weeks earlier to visit Miss Mary Finch, his aunt and only living relation. He looked around her tidy farm, listened to her ragged, wet cough, and moved in. Miss Mary wasn’t even cold on her deathbed when he helped himself to the coins in her strongbox.
The first sense we get of the terrible lack of empowerment for slaves is when Isabel wants to run ahead of the coffin to visit the grave of her mother. The Pastor has to ask for permission for her to do this, since Isabel does not even have the right to speak to a white man.
‘The child wants to run ahead,’ Pastor explained to him. ‘She has kin buried there. Do you give leave for a quick visit?’
Mr Robert’s mouth tightened like a rope pulled taut.
What an image – the rope – symbolic not just of the tethering of slave to the white man, but the implicit image of a man’s right to make a decision about a girl’s life, and, of course, hanging. In just one line, the author demonstrates vividly the power the white man has and the threat of danger for Isabel, or any slave, in the smallest of actions.
At first, Isabel believes that she and Ruth are now freed. After all, Miss Mary Finch had freed the girls in her will and the will was with her lawyer. And again, here are some of the profound truths of slavery. There are so many people in this book who are in a position to help Isabel, but they either can’t summon the energy, or are too afraid for their own position. Here, Pastor Weeks, whom we should assume perhaps as a man of the cloth, is a good man, listens to Isabel, and initially tries to reason with Mr Robert.
Pastor Weeks held up his hand. ‘It’s true. Your aunt had some odd notions. She taught the child [to read] herself. I disapproved, of course. Only leads to trouble.’
I spoke up again. ‘We’re to be freed, sir. The lawyer, Mr Cornell, he’ll tell you. Ruth and me, we’re going to get work and a place of our own to sleep.’
Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, the lawyer left for Boston before the blockade.
‘The girl is lying, then,’ Mr Robert said. ‘She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved. The sooner I’m rid of her, the better.’
…Pastor Weeks fumbled with the latch on his Bible. ‘You and your sister belong to Mr Robert now. he’ll be a good master to you.’…The minister placed the Bible in his leather satchel and pulled it up over his shoulder. He studied the ground, his hands, Mr Robert’s horse and the clouds. He did not look at me. ‘You’ll be wanting to bring their shoes and blankets,’ he finally said. ‘They’ll fetch a better price that way.’
Essentially Ruth and Isabel are treated as possessions, and not even possessions of value. They end up being bought by Mister and Missus Lockton, supporters of the King, and are taken to New York. Mr Lockton is not as cruel and malicious towards the girls as Missus Lockton, but he is apathetic towards the girls’ care. Missus Lockton addresses her lack of power and the cruel behaviour of her husband towards her in her treatment of the girls.
Several dreadful incidents occur. Isabel decides that she needs to take action, and becomes a spy for the Patriots. How dangerous this was cannot be underestimated. And you really feel the danger in this book, illustrated through the writing:
‘I had only to open the gate latch and step out.
My hand would not move.
If I opened the gate I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from a master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.
If I opened the gate, I might die of fright.
I leaned my head against the gate. I could not open the gate, but I had to open the gate.
I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War and the treatment of slaves as I read, although, not being American, it could get confusing at times. I suspect children reading this might need some background knowledge to help with their comprehension.
The quotes at the beginning of the chapters were interesting, and helped me to contextualise events a little, although I did still have to do a little bit of online research to get my head around some critical dates.
I highly recommend this book, although with some of the violent acts in it, I feel it needs to be read with a parent or teacher if the children are younger, providing opportunity to discuss the context of these actions, or children from about 10+yrs could read it independently.
There is a very good summary of the book, and the violent acts in it as the following link: Parental Book Reviews – Chains
Betsy Bird, of fuse8productions also reviews the book here.
Now, I am off to watch ‘Lincoln’ in the hope that it furthers my American History education somewhat.