Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publication: Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 2008
Genre: Juvenile Historical Fiction
Setting: 18th-century New YorkDescription: Isabel (13) and her younger sister Ruth are slaves and orphans, having lost their mother a year earlier and their father, sold away from his family when Ruth was just a baby. When Miss Mary Finch dies, her greedy nephew decides to sell Isabel and Ruth, although Isabel explains papers were drawn up by a lawyer to provide their freedom. The lawyer has fled to Boston and no one cares enough to investigate, so the girls are sold to an arrogant Tory couple who take them to New York. Isabel is protective of Ruth, developmentally disabled and prone to epilepsy, so she undertakes a heavy workload with determination. She has one friend, Curzon, slave to a businessman who supports the American revolutionaries, and he persuades Isabel to spy on her master in the hopes that will gain her the influential support she needs to secure her freedom. Isabel is not interested in politics, recognizing neither side cares about her wellbeing but when separated from Ruth, feels she has no choice but to undertake dangerous assignments . . .
My Impression: The de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection is one of the country’s leading research centers for children’s literature and is affiliated with the University of Southern Mississippi, where I am a part-time graduate student. The curator leads a monthly book discussion and when I saw the group was reading Chains for Black History Month, I decided to read along. Amazingly, I had no meeting conflicts so joined the group via Zoom at lunchtime and enjoyed the discussion with a small but delightful group of book lovers. We liked intrepid Isabel and appreciated Anderson’s detailed research and the historical quotes with which she begins each chapter, which created a strong sense of place. One reader was disappointed in the anachronistic use of the word “conversate” (usually, I am the one who notices these things so I knew I was among friends) but overall I found the language convincing. I also appreciated that Isabel was not perfect, that while protective of her sister she was human enough to find her annoying at times. Some felt that Isabel had an implausible amount of freedom navigating the streets of New York for a young female slave but you can’t ask a character to be a spy without creating opportunities for her to report her findings, right? I am willing to provide suspension of disbelief for Isabel’s excursions, particularly as it turns out she was not as invisible or careful as she thought.
Most of all, I liked that nothing was improbably easy for Isabel; in fact, her story was difficult and heartbreaking at times. The book ends on a cliffhanger and I will definitely continue with the trilogy, although not right away. Surprisingly, it did not win any Newbery honors, although it was a finalist for the National Book Award. We speculated whether being a white author writing about a black slave made a difference in how the book was received in 2008 and if that would be different in 2021. I particularly enjoyed that one of the participants in the discussion described how she had assigned the book to middle schoolers when she was teaching. She emphasized to them how unusual it was for Isabel’s mistress to have taught her to read, which was frowned on, even in Rhode Island, as she wanted the students to understand how being able to read empowered Isabel.This is my fourth book in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
Source: Library. 4 ½ stars. The only book of Anderson's I had read previously was Speak (also harrowing but very good), so I am glad I found time for this one, plus made some nice new acquaintances.