Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday's Meanderings: Review of Chains

I usually do book reviews on Fridays, but this Friday I will probably be gone all day, so I decided to do one today. I just finished reading...actually, re-reading... Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a 'must read' for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It is a middle grade level novel.

In the spring of 1776, 13 year-old Isabel and her 5 year-old sister Ruth, who is prone to "fits" ( seizures), were sold by the unscrupulous nephew of their present owner, Miss Mary, when she dies. Their new owners are ruthless, cruel, and wealthy Loyalists who live in New York.  Almost as soon as she gets off the boat, Isabel is accosted by a friendly young slave named Curzon, who has considerably more freedom than Isabel will have in her new home. Curzon plays a role in helping the soldiers of the American Revolution, and begs Isabel to, literally, become a spy. She refuses because of her fear of being found out by her new owners, whom she already knows are cruel and unfeeling towards their slaves.

However, after her little sister Ruth is sold in the middle of the night while Isabel sleeps, she is again approached by rebels who promise to give her freedom if she agrees to spy. She uses her "cloak of invisibility" which whites unwittingly give to their slaves, and listens in on the conversations of her owner, Master Lockton, as he and his Tory friends make plans to stop the rebel uprisings. She sees the place where Lockton hides a document that he and the others, including the mayor, have signed, that would definitely cause him to be arrested. That night, she steals into his library, finds the document, and takes it to the rebel commander.

That act of espionage, however, does not lead to freedom for her or any promise to find the missing Ruth, which then leads Isabel to distrust the Americans as well as the British.

This book is full of exciting events, too many to discuss here, but it is more than the events of Isabel's life which make the story to engrossing. This is a story about slavery...but not in the South, as most novels about slavery are, but in the very heart of the North, New York City. How was it different here, than in the South? The answer is that the institution of slavery was the same everywhere, only the duties of the slaves were different. In the South, they labored on plantations; in the North, they labored in their Mistresses' bedrooms and kitchens, and served their Masters in many ways, sometimes unspeakable.

This is the story of one thirteen year old slave who could read and write, and who was strong, intellegent, intuitive, loving, emotionally mature, and above all, fiercely determined to be free and find her lost sister and free her, also.

But it's more than that. It's a story of what slavery was like in the 1770s in the British dominated North;  a story where the British could be seen as the "good guys", if there is such a thing in a war... when both sides believe they are right, what constitutes the "good" over the "bad?" It is a story where history, morality, and a sense of right over wrong meld into the most minute details and sensory perceptions, and make this story come alive, putting the reader into history itself of 200 years ago.

Chains is a remarkable book, made all the more so by the careful way Anderson weaves the themes of powerlessness, sadistic ownership, invisibility, morality, the sources of human hope and strength, and the overwhelming desire for freedom together to make a fascinating story you won't be able to put down.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.