Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson)

I am a huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan. All of her books are piercingly honest, with just the right amount of wit and humor. Her characters and their dialogue are always spot on, and they bring an element of truth that shine the light of awareness on a variety of stories and issues otherwise unknown or ignored.

Laurie Halse Anderson has quite a voice. Not only does she speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves in her book, she also advocates on behalf of librarians dealing with issues of censorship. I had the distinct honor of attending a dinner with Laurie H.A. at the 2009 American Association of School Librarians Conference. Like her characters, she is witty and intelligent, with a heavy dose of honesty. When she speaks, people listen.

The story she tells in Chains is that of a slave girl whose freedom is hanging between two nations at war.

This is not a feel-good, happily-ever-after sort of book. It is raw and ugly and sad. I grew more broken-hearted for Isabel, the main character, with every passing page.
Set in volatile America in the 1770's, this book shows yet another horrific side of the war for independence.

Isabel is a young African American teenager who has had everything taken from her. Born a slave, she has never known freedom. She is an orphan charged with the care of her 5 year old baby sister, who suffers from seizures. Their mistress, who treated them well, taught her to read, and has even left in her will for them to be freed, has passed away. Her nephew, however, did not honor that request and promptly sells them to a cruel couple who are deeply devoted to the Loyalist cause. Isabel learns a great deal about the politics of war in their home. To say that she is treated like garbage would be quite the understatement. I have never despised a villain the way I have Madam Lockton, Isabel's new mistress.

Through it all, Isabel's hope to gain freedom for herself and her sister press her to become involved in the war by serving as a spy. She helps the American side, with their promise that she will be freed. Rather than being freed, however, Isabel is beaten until she can't think, has her teeth broken, is locked in stocks, and then branded on her face with a capital I (for Insolence). The Americans who promised her help turn their back on her. She eventually becomes (unwillingly) involved with the British side of the war, but they too use her and cast her aside.

Everyone seems willing to sacrifice the life, health, and spirit of this poor child. As desperate as the war for independence must have been, it is likely that there were many Isabels who unknowingly (and with great sacrifice) contributed to the success of the Americans. Yet, when our children study the American Revolution, where is the recognition of these individuals? As much as I love my country, I feel shame for the way these people, these Isabels, were treated. I do not know how all those people reconciled their desperate plight for freedom while they bought, sold, abused, and starved other human beings.  I am thankful for the Laurie Halse Andersons in the world who use their voice to speak for victims like Isabel.

*Chains is a National Book Award finalist and 2009 winner of the prestigious Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Visit the author's site for teaching resources and discussion guides: