Friday, October 3, 2008

Review of Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

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.

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