Thursday, February 25, 2021

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson - first in a trilogy set in Revolutionary-era New York

Title: Chains: Seeds of America #1
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publication: Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 2008
Genre: Juvenile Historical Fiction
Setting: 18th-century New York
Description: 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.


Buried In Print said...

What great progress you're making on a reading challenge so early in the year! I've had this one on my TBR for years but your post makes me want to nudge it up the stack. I can see where a specific detail about language use can provoke a moment of distrust but it seems as though 'conversate' has a long history; as long as there's debate, and it's not a clear error, I'm willing to suspend my questions and sink into the story, as it seems you've done too.

Judy Krueger said...

I have long meant to read this author but have not done so yet. Your review made me remember to add her to my impossibly long lists once again.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

This reminded me of Octavia Butler's Kindred, though that book is not juvenile fiction and has time travel elements. But there are parts in Kindred where clearly reading ability is considered a high luxury for slaves and also makes people wary and suspicious of them. Knowing how to read was dangerous in so many ways.
~ Lex (

TracyK said...

This is a very thorough review and how nice to be able to discuss the book with that book group.

I like the idea of reading about revolutionary-era New York, and slavery at the time. One book I read was set in the UK around that time (Instruments of Darkness) and had a few scenes in the colonies, which got me interested in reading more about that time. Unfortunately I cannot read about everything I want, and I already have way too many books.

CLM said...

Marcie, I was aware of this book but would certainly not have got to it if I hadn't been curious about the De Grummond reading group and if I hadn't been aware I don't read much fiction by people of color. And I read a lot of historical fiction and suspense anyway but don't usually keep track. My goal is usually not to read more books but to return my library books on time and actually clean my house once in a while . . . without regular guests there doesn't seem to be much point! One of my neighbors said the other day he would like to see my collection and the idea of a virtual stranger in my home seemed startling after nearly a full year! He is an estate lawyer and I need to do a will as soon as I figure out where to leave my books.

Lex, I have never read Octavia Butler although I have certainly read a lot about her and my old Barnes & Noble fantasy buyer was a big fan. Kindred does sound like something I would like. Maybe it would be good for my book group?

There is certainly not time to read everything, Tracy, and I admire how focused you are with your reading. It is fun to glean knowledge of books I might never get to by reading about them and often it encourages me to deviate.

At the moment, there are several piles on the floor, waiting to be packed up and documented. One for my sale list, one to give to a wonderful used bookstore half an hour away called More Than Words, which provides jobs to teens who have been in trouble with the law. My father was a judge committed to juvenile justice and introduced me to the amazing woman who started it. And a third pile is going to my niece's school. The school librarian became her 4th grade teacher this year, which is odd but at least it means I can trust her to find a good home for these books. It's just so hard to give anything away! But I need the space! (I need the floor back too!)

Judy, thanks for visiting! I enjoyed your blog.