Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Accessible and absorbing story about Isabel, a slave in New York during the American War of Independence. Historically and politically accurate and with a light but realistic touch, it perfectly frames its characters and times. Super stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 0747598061

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Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves. But they should be free - Miss Mary Finch left a will that said so. But Miss Mary Finch is dead and her greedy nephew and heir denies all knowledge of the will. So Isabel and Ruth are sold to the Locktons and taken to New York. The Revolutionary War is underway and New York is a dangerous place. The Locktons are loyalists, but the patriots are in control of the city.

But Isabel isn't interested in politics. She simply wants the freedom she was promised. and there's little chance of that from the Locktons. Mrs Lockton takes against the girls and treats them badly. The little cruelties become bigger and bigger until eventually she commits one act of true barbarism that Isabel will never forgive.

This is a lovely novel - about big issues and big stories, but never losing its focus on individual people. Isabel is a captivating central character, treated abominably and reaching depths of sadness today's children are unlikely to ever experience, but she never loses her spirit. She's enslaved in every possible way, but never stops being her own impulsive and sometimes hot-tempered self, and somehow, despite her ,she manages acts of kindness and generosity that are utterly heroic.

It's beautifully researched too - with the streets of eighteenth century New York as vivid and alive on the pages as if they still existed today. The small details of life are all there - what people ate, where they lived, and what they wore. There's a wonderful scene in which Mrs Lockton dresses up for a reception and applies false eyebrows made of mouse fur. When later they come loose and drop into her soup, I felt Isabel's schadenfreude as keenly as she did!

The underlying themes are of freedom, of course. At the time of the American War of Independence, fully twenty percent of the human beings in that country were slaves - a true irony for a nation founded on the idea of liberty. While the patriots cry freedom for a nation, the British are offering individual freedom to slaves who sign up to fight for the loyalists. And of course nobody on either side actually cares a whit for Isabel or any other individual slave. Anderson takes a light touch with the politics, allowing Isabel's viewpoint to lay bare the hypocrisies, and what she gives her readers is a wise but intimate and utterly absorbing novel.


My thanks to the nice people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi is an equally accessible story about the birth of the United States in a fictionalised biography of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, while Jupiter Williams by S I Martin talks about life for black people in London during the same historical period. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M T Anderson is a much more ambitious and sophisticated book, but will repay keen readers in spades.

Booklists.jpg Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson is in the Carnegie Medal Shortlist 2010.

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