“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chains • Middle-grade fiction

by Laurie Halse Anderson

October 2008 • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
• Middle-grade fiction
Freedom. In 1776 New England, that word is on everyone's lips. But for thirteen-year-old Isabel the word holds a different meaning...
Story: Equal parts political thriller and coming of age story, Chains is an impeccably researched story of a young woman's quest for freedom that brings the American Revolution to life in all its grand and conflicted glory. After the death of the only mistress she has ever known, Isabel and her younger sister, Ruth, are sold to a wealthy New York family even though their former owner had promised them their freedom. As Isabel tries to work freedom for herself and her sister, alliances are made and promises are broken and Isabel learns the hard way that the "freedom" she's being asked to spy for does not and may never extend to her. Faced with the choice of working for or against the British, Isabel chooses to side with herself and work with anyone who can help her.
"Laurie Halse Anderson's CHAINS is searing and has so many brilliant sparks I became lost in it. Isabel's harrowing journey into a nightmare realm of slavery, betrayal, loss and ultimately hope quite literally had me sobbing."
-- Three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner and Michael L. Printz Award winner, Angela Johnson
Story behind the story: About the inspiration for Chains, Anderson says: "A decade ago, while researching Fever 1793, I came across facts that shocked me: that Benjamin Franklin owned slaves, that twenty percent of New York City in 1776 was in bondage, and that the Revolution was not fought for the freedom of all Americans. These surprises led me to a deep investigation of our history . . . . Slavery affects all Americans, regardless of ethnic background, or how long our families have lived here. Slavery is the elephant in our country’s living room. It won’t go away until we acknowledge, understand, and deal with it. I hope Isabel’s story will help young readers break free of the chains of ignorance and misunderstanding. Maybe they will be strong enough to move our country forward to empathy and healing, and finally allow America to fulfill the dream of liberty and justice for all."
FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent; please click on the "comments" link below to read what your colleagues have to say about it -- plus more to come!


Nan Hoekstra said...

The windows into history open to readers of historical fiction. Chains leads the reader boldly into Isabel's world. This is the joy and magnetism of good historical fiction - it excites the imagination and curiosity! Quotes at the chapter beginning's introduce authenticity and primary sources. Halse Anderson's strong characterizations, action and dialogue combined with a beautiful presentation - cover, fonts, paper - make this book a winner and one I will recommend highly to my middle and high school readers. The details enrich the aliveness of history -- Ruth's doll, Isabel's brainpan, Madam's eyebrows...huzzah!

Tasses said...

Is Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson a story of the American Revolution, a story of slavery's injustice, or a story of a young girl’s struggle to keep the remaining trace of her family together as she lingers at adulthood’s door?

As America seeks autonomy from monarchy’s rule, an orphaned slave girl, Isabel, is promised freedom upon her mistress’s death. But after the death, Isabel, and her younger sister Ruth, are sold into a vile and conflicting situation. Who does she trust? Who will help her find the lawyer that can substantiate her claim? Isabel has no allegiance to either the British or the Revolutionaries and consorting with either poses dangerous consequences. She seeks only what all men seek: freedom.

With Chains, Anderson gives us full and diverse characters. Though some are mean, or even evil, she manages to introduce counter-characters to demonstrate the complete picture of human emotions. It’s easy to fall in love with Isabel and by the story’s end, we are clamoring for more of her authentically proud and strong voice. The plot moves at a good pace for both holding student interest as well as allowing enough detail for cultural/historical investigation. My only worry is the depth of the political conflict’s motivations are glossed over (and I understand why this is necessary in a novel), so educators might want to provide historical background knowledge to support the story before, during and after each section (which is always a sound educational practice anyway). The historical references are amazingly abundant and perfectly researched, and Anderson includes a fantastic appendix, easing the quest for supplemental materials.

In the end, what Chains does best is juxtapose the irony of a nation struggling for freedom with that of one young lady waging her personal war for those same rights. So to answer my leading question: Chains is a novel about the American Revolution, it’s a story about slavery’s injustice and a story of one girl’s march into adulthood; but Chains is really the story of Everyman’s rise from tyranny.

Recommended in history classrooms as well as literature classrooms in grades 6-10. Would suit both units on slavery, the American Revolution as well as literature discussions on personal freedoms and inalienable rights.

Also reviewed on Let The Wild Rumpus Start! and Library Thing

Tasses said...

P.S. Forgot to give my rating and credentials: Rating 5/5 and I'm a Reading Specialist in Florida.

Rebecca Dickenson said...

Told from the point of view of a young slave girl named Isabel, this novel takes readers back to a time and place when owning others was socially acceptable. By setting Isabel's struggles against the backdrop of New York City in 1776, Anderson draws a parallel between Isabel's struggle for freedom and the ideals of the American Revolution. Told in first-person narrative by Isabel, the story really places the reader in Revolutionary America, but the language is very accessible for students. Isabel's primary goal is freedom for herself and her younger sister, Ruth. She first chooses to act as a spy for the Revolutionaries, believing they will help her to freedom. Then, hearing that the British have offered freedom to any slaves that will help them, she waffles. As a history buff, I absolutely could not put this book down, and the ending made me want to scream!

I would recommend it to students who like historical fiction, or are interested in the Revolutionary War. It's probably a fourth-grade-and-up read; there's nothing inappropriate for younger students, but they wouldn't understand some of the historical references, and there is a scene where Isabel is beaten and branded.

For educators, Chains would be a great introduction to social studies topics like the Revolutionary War, or slavery, for students up through high school. I can also see it as a great text to study character development and change; Isabel goes through some major changes as a result of her experiences.

Rating: 5 Strongly Recommend

Rebecca Dickenson,
Eagleton Elementary
Maryville, TN.

Pamela Burke said...

Chains is fabulous. Isabel is a rare character, a slave from the North. Her story brings so much life to the time period, so much depth to the sketch of history students at this age receive - how many of your students do you think realize there were so many slaves in NYC, or even that the city was occupied by the British during the war? Because of the popularity of Speak, I already have readers lining up for this book, which may not have been the case with another author. I'm sure this book will land in the hands of students who don't usually read historical fiction, and I hope they surprise themselves by how much they enjoy it. With the promise of a sequel to come, this might be just the gateway book I'm looking for!

Rating: 5 Strongly Recommend

Pamela Burke
Librarian, Marlboro School
Marlboro, VT

SurRural Librarian

Heather said...

Anderson is amazing; she writes historical fiction as though she is writing about her own life. It comes across as effortless, which, of course, must mean that she spent countless hours researching every little fact. I can not imagine Isabel existing at any other point in history; that is not to say that her character is contrived, it is more that she was created by her place in time and space.

Anderson’s characters are intriguing and well developed. Even the characters that the reader is meant to hate are given depth. I was easily lost in Isabel’s world & in Anderson’s careful prose. Chains is the best piece of historical fiction that I have read in a good, long while.

Yes, take the day off and pack a picnic just to read this book: 5

Find more reviews of Chains on the ACPL Mock Newbery Blog.

Children’s Librarian

Anonymous said...

It didn't take me many pages to be caught up in Isabel and Ruth's story. Chains gives us a glimpse into a part of history that I can't recall many, if any, books addressing--the Revolutionary War from a slave girl's perspective. I learned a great deal about the occupation of New York by the British and the limited rights of African Americans. I agonized with Isabel as she made courageous choices and dealt with choices that were made for her.

This would be a great book to use in conjunction with a Revolutionary War unit. I'm considering reading it aloud to my 4th graders as we've just started talking about the Revolutionary War.

5/5 rating from me. I can't wait for the sequel!

Kristin G.
4th grade teacher
Eldora, Iowa

Becky said...

A great novel that just recently excited my imagination was "Bedlam South," by David Donaldson & Mark Grish. It is a great Civil War historical fiction. I was able to pre-read it before its October 7th release date! You can imagine how excited I was!

Thanks for suggesting "Chains," I have been looking for a great book for my son to read who is enthralled with all of the wars of history- he happens to be in 4th grade so this should be excellent match for what I have been looking for.

Becky said...

Oops spelled the author's name wrong. Wouldn't want to offend anyone. The names of the authors are David Donaldson and Mark Grisham, not Grish as I had previously written.

Abby said...

The year is 1776. Isabel is a slave and her mistress, Miss Mary Finch, has just died. Although Miss Mary had written in her will that upon her death Isabel and her sister Ruth would be free, the document is nowhere to be found. So Isabel and Ruth are sold to the Locktons in New York.

The Locktons are Loyalists, supporting King George as the colonies teeter on the brink of the Revolutionary War. When Isabel arrives, she is approached by a young slave named Curzon who tells her that if she spies on Mr. Lockton and the meetings he has in his home, the rebel forces will ensure that she and her sister get safe passage back home to Rhode Island.

Isabel is in a unique position to spy on her master. She's as good as invisible to the gentlemen as she stands there waiting to serve them. And she'll do anything to procure freedom for herself and her sister. But it's not quite as easy as Isabel had hoped it would be. She'll come to realize that she needs to find her own path and seize her own destiny if she's ever to break these chains.

A unique book told from a first-person point of view, Chains really pulls the reader into the story. Of course I knew about slavery before reading this book, but Chains really brings the horrors of slavery to life and, perhaps for the first time, I feel like I really got it. Add to this the fact that most historical novels about slavery are set in or around the Civil War. The fact of the matter is that there were slaves in the American colonies. Lots of them. And the revolutionaries fought a war for freedom, but not freedom for all people.

The storyline pulled me in at first and the writing drew me in even further. Anderson knows how to paint a picture of scenes and events so that you see them unfolding in front of your eyes. Take this passage from after Isabel's been approached by Curzon and is deciding whether to take information to him:

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 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.
(pg 64)

I was completely pulled in by the story and the characters and I didn't want to put this book down. When I got to the end and found a to-be-continued, I was both dismayed and delighted. Dismayed because I want to know what happens next. I want to know right now. And delighted because Yay! There's going to be another book!!

Chains definitely gets 5/5 stars from me. It's one of the best books I've read all year! My review's also posted at my blog: Abby (the) Librarian.

Abby Johnson, librarian
Barrington Area Library
Barrington, IL

ms-teacher said...

This book comes highly recommended - I give it 5 stars and honestly, if I could I would give it a whole lot more. It is THAT good!

You can read my review by going to Review of Chains.

thanks for privilege of reading such a wonderful book.

Eva M said...

Freedom is snatched away from 13-year-old Isabel and her 5-year-old sister Ruth before they have a chance to experience it – after their gentle owner Miss Finch dies, having filled out paperwork with a lawyer to set the girls free, her nephew simply sells them off to the Locktons, a Loyalist couple who live in New York City. As it is 1776, this puts Isabel right in the middle of the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

Madam Lockton, a nasty piece of work, mistreats Isobel and gives her endless work, while she makes the sweet and pliable Ruth a sort of pet. Unfortunately, Ruth suffers from occasional “spells,” and they so unnerve Madam that she sells her, devastating Isabel.

The chaos and fervor swirling through New York City eventually pull Isabel from her dark despair. Although she had served as a spy for the Patriots after they promised her freedom, she becomes disenchanted with them when it becomes clear they only want freedom for white people; Isabel even briefly helps the Royalist cause when she hears that they offer freedom to slaves who escape and join the army. However, it seems that if a slave escapes from a Loyalist household, that’s a whole different matter.

When the only person in New York whom she might call a friend, a slave and Patriot named Curzon, is captured and held under terrible conditions by the British, Isabel shakes off her torpor and fear and smuggles in food. Once again, she is drawn reluctantly into the Patriot cause, carrying messages from prison to captured officers and back.
When Madam Lockton finds out, she promises to sell her immediately, and so Isabel escapes the household, ending part 1 of this saga. Will Isabel escape to freedom? How will she find Ruth? We’ll have to wait for part 2 to find out.

Anderson captures the milieu of 18th century New York City with a completeness, immediacy, and (I am guessing, though I am no expert) accuracy that set the reader right down at street level. It isn’t so much the sensory descriptions that set the tone as the certainty that this is how it must have been for a slave like Isabel. Anderson achieves this through Isabel’s voice, which has a truly authentic ring to it without sounding either stilted or too modern. A masterful use of period turns of phrase and a touch of dialect (not much, though – Isabel is a reader who was brought up by a loving mother and an educated mistress) give Isabel a narrative voice that conveys a convincing picture of her times.

Being a slave, Isabel’s world is quite circumscribed. She can’t describe what she hasn’t seen, and so the reader gets to know the few places and routes that she – the Lockton’s house, the market, the route to the water pump, the prison. Her knowledge of and opinions on the political situation are gained by the conversations she hears around her and by the ways she and Ruth are affected, which gives all events, whether small or historic, a very personal immediacy. For the reader, learning about life in New York City during the Revolution could not be any more enthralling or effortless than this. Well-written, impeccably researched, exciting, and heart-clenching, this is a fabulous read and a definite contender for the Newbery.

Eva Mitnick
Senior Children's Librarian
Los Angeles Public Library

RistauReadslibrary2 said...

I just finished Chains this morning and loved it! What a great addition to a Revolutionary War unit it will be. I have been familiar with Laurie Halse Anderson's work for a while now, and have enjoyed all of her books. Chains is no exception.
The quotes at the beginning of each chapter (which students may overlook) were an excellent addition, and a true indication of the amount of research the author engaged in to write this book. While there are numerous books out about the Civil War that features a slave's perspective, I had never given much thought to the existence of slavery during the Revolutionary War. It was easy to get caught up in Isabel's life and root for something to go right for her. I found myself groaning each time she would do something to incite the wrath of Mrs. Lockton. As I was nearing the novel's end I had to force myself to not look ahead since I so wanted to know how things were resolved. I will have to content myself with the fact that for now Isabel and Curzon are free and wait for the sequel.
Tina Ristau
Teacher Librarian
Waterloo, Iowa

Kay Bowes, Youth Services Librarian said...

Chains is a powerful story of thirteen-year old slave Isabel who is at war during the Revolutionary War herself. She is at war with slavery. Sold away from her Southern mistress (who said she would give her freedom in her will) with her sister Ruth, Isabel has a variety of adventures and misadventures as an “owned” person. She even loses the freedom of being known by her own name. She tries hard to take care of simple Ruth but when tragedy befalls, Isabel is so wrought with anguish that she seeks to be captured by the British, thinking they will give her freedom. She seeks deliverance through the actions of spying on the British for a rag-tail youth named Curzon. The quotations at the beginning of each chapter are from historic documents belonging to the period. Extensive research has produced a taut tale of what it was like for slaves during this period in American history. The characters are believable, attractive to the reader, and well drawn. This is sure-fire winner from a meticulous author. Look for the continuing story of Isabel and Curzon in the upcoming novel Forge.

Rating: 4

Kay Bowes, Youth Services Librarian, Brandywine Hundred Library, Wilmington, DE

wisteria said...

Once you read Chains, it will be etched in your mind forever. Taking place during the beginning of the American Revolution in New York, Chains is one of those rare books of historical fiction to cherish, savor and hold on to. Laurie Halse Anderson has accomplished an intricate literary shaping of Isabel Gardner and Madame Lockton, realistically memorable, one dear the other hateful. You will love Isabel as the devoted sister of little Ruth and an insolent slave to Madame. You will loathe the cruel and inhumane way that Madame Lockton treats Isabel and parades Ruth as if she is a trophy.

Metaphorically, the book’s title Chains represents a figurative chain of oppression that denies the colony’s their liberty by the laws enacted by the British Parliament. Isabel is also chained to Madame as her slave. While the colonies are at the mercy of the King, so too is Isabel at the mercy of her cruel owner. Isabel learns that her freedom has no side but her own self preservation. She will aid either Patriot or Loyalist as long as they can help her to break though the chains.

Anyone who loves historical fiction and American History will not want to pass this book up. Chains would be an ideal novel to supplement the American History curriculum for grades 4-8. Students and teachers may also read this book and decide to research further one of the many events or conditions that took place, for example; Great Fire of 1776, population of slaves second highest in the colonies in mid 1700s, and treatment of prisoners.

Laurie Halse Anderson has a poetic gifted writing style with an amazing allure that I find myself rereading passages again and again. Throughout the book Isabel’s moods are depicted by a reference to bees.
Anderson writes,

“ Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul. Dark honey filled up inside me, drowning my thoughts and making it hard to move my eyes and hands.” (157)

Perhaps this is one of the reasons Chains was nominated for the National Book Award on October 15, 2008. I for one believe it is well deserving of this honor.
Rating 5, Strongly recommended.

Donna Lynn Edwards
Library Media Specialist
Pembroke Elementary School
Danbury, CT 06810

Also reviewed: http://www.bookwormsdinnerchildren.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Isabel's story, told in her own strong, unflinching voice, make Chains a worthy addition to the genre of historical fiction. Using the unique perspective of an educated slave girl to narrate the events that literally held New York City captive during the Revolutionary War, Halse has created a story as individual and surprising as its character.

My only caveat is the pace of the novel; much like real life, it moves in ebbs and flows which might leave a reader uninterested.

3- Neutral

Amanda Ziegler
Youth Librarian
Wichita Falls Public Library
Wichita Falls, TX

Theresa G said...

After reading all of the other comments, I am not sure that I have much more to add about the storyline but I can say as a social studies teacher, this book is amazing. What I appreciate about it the most is that it is set in Colonial America and reminds our students (and readers) that slavery was not confined to the Civil War era!! The characters are moving and real and one can get caught up in the story. Ideal as a read aloud for intermediate students or as part of a historical fiction literature circle with middle level students - this book is well worth all the attention and awards it is getting!

jlarkin said...

I LOVED this book! Another winner for author Laurie Halse Anderson!

I was immediately drawn into the story from the first page - the character of Isabel was so vivid and real - I felt her sorrow, pain, disbelief - and all of the other emotions she went through during the story. I also loved the weaving of the fictional characters with the factual historical aspects of the Revolutionary War. The quotes at the start of each chapter were fantastic and this novel would be great as an interdisciplinary piece.

So many aspects of this story were amazing...Ruth, Curzon, Lady Seymour - and especially the ending! I will highly recommend this story to my students...as I was reading it many of them already commented to me that they wanted it next!

Rating - a definite 5.