I am a huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan. Just ask my kids from last year how often I recommended Fever 1793 to them. I loved Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution when I reviewed it back in May, and I can’t wait to use it when I introduce our women’s history project this year. And I still remember reading Speak for the first time in junior high (and I keep meaning to reread it). As you can imagine, I was thrilled when I heard that Anderson would be publishing a new historical fiction novel this month and even more thrilled when my school librarian tracked down an ARC for me!
Chains did not disappoint.
In 1776, Isabel is a young slave (about 11?). She and her little sister, Ruth, live in Rhode Island and Isabel dreams of the day they will be free. Their master, Miss Finch, has promised them freedom upon her death, but when the time comes her lawyer has fled the sporadic battles between the Loyalists and Patriots. Miss Finch’s greedy young nephew quickly sells the girls off to a wealthy Loyalist and his cruel wife. Isabel and Ruth are sent to New York City, ophaned, alone, and at the mercy of the cruel Mrs. Lockton.
When they arrive in New York City, Isabel immediately meets a young slave named Curzon, who convinces her that the quickest way to freedom is to spy on her Loyalist master and report to the Patriots.
Ruth is “simple” and Isabel spends much of her time hiding her sister’s episodes from Mrs. Lockton. But when they are discovered, she is thought to be possessed by the devil and Mrs. Lockton immediately sells her off. Thus begins Isabel’s moral struggle- who should she support? More importantly, which side will help her become free and find her sister? She has no particularly strong feelings for the Patriots or the Loyalists- she only wants her own freedom. Sadly, both sides fail to take slaves into account, using them as tools rather than people: messengers, spies, soldiers, cooks, and everything in between.
It’s difficult to do the plot justice in a brief recap. There is so much going on, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed. I found myself putting the book down after a chapter and going back to it later on. Oh no, no because I wasn’t enjoying it! Because I didn’t want the book to end. I was digesting it in small pieces, constantly mulling ideas and events over in my mind. Anderson does nothing if she doesn’t force you to think, really think about the American Revolutionary War. I frequently found myself torn between the British and the Colonists, for Isabel’s sake. I can honestly say I have never really sat down to consider the Revolutionary War. We grow up romanticizing the fight for independence and history books rarely qualify or quantify the people who were chained between the two sides, forced to choose and getting nothing in return. Wow!
Isabel’s voice rings true to the times, without being overwhelming. The book reads like a story set in 1776 without being dry or difficult to understand. In historical fiction that is extremely important. If kids feel overwhelmed by dialogue, accents, or vernacular it is that much harder to get them to read and enjoy the book.
What really makes me happy is how kid-friendly Chains is. I already promised my students that we would be using it as a read-aloud later in the year. As a teacher, I know it will push their thinking and I can already foresee the great conversations and debates we will have. But I also know that they will genuinely enjoy the book. Anderson has a gift- she makes history come alive and she makes it fun. Yet I still come away from her historical fiction books knowing more than I did going in. I know the same will be true for my students.
I am sure Chains will be at the top of many Newbery prediction lists and it is certainly on mine. However, it should also begin making its way into school reading lists. It seems like the same old books have been around since I was in elementary school. My Brother Sam Is Dead and Johnny Tremain are both great books but I think Chains is more historically-accurate and kid-friendly. In NJ, the Revolutionary War is taught in 5th grade and I feel like Chains is just that much more kid-friendly and accessible while preserving (and exceeding) historical accuracy needs. So I am starting up the chant, “Here, here! Chains for the curriculum!”