At the start of the Revolutionary War, Isabel is sold to a cruel loyalist family, even though she has been promised freedom by her former owner. Soon faced with the choice of working for or against the British, Isabel chooses to work with anyone who can help her. Read more...
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At the start of the Revolutionary War, Isabel is sold to a cruel loyalist family, even though she has been promised freedom by her former owner. Soon faced with the choice of working for or against the British, Isabel chooses to work with anyone who can help her.
- ISBN-13: 9781416905851
- ISBN-10: 1416905855
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
- Publish Date: October 2008
- Page Count: 316
- Reading Level: Ages 10-14
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 54.
- Review Date: 2008-09-01
- Reviewer: Staff
Pursuing similar themes as M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing, this gripping novel offers readers a startlingly provocative view of the Revolutionary War. Isabel Finch, the narrator, and her five-year-old sister, Ruth, are to be freed from slavery upon the death of their mistress in Rhode Island, but the mistress's unscrupulous heir easily persuades the local pastor to dispense with reading the will. Before long Isabel and Ruth are in New York City, the property of a Loyalist couple, whose abusiveness inspires Isabel to a dangerous course: she steals into the Patriot army camp to trade a crucial Loyalist secret in exchange for passage to Rhode Island for herself and Ruth. But not only does the Patriot colonel fail to honor his promise, he personally hands her over to her Loyalist mistress when she runs away, to face disastrous consequences. Anderson (Speak; Fever 1793) packs so much detail into her evocation of wartime New York City that readers will see the turmoil and confusion of the times, and her solidly researched exploration of British and Patriot treatment of slaves during a war for freedom is nuanced and evenhanded, presented in service of a fast-moving, emotionally involving plot. Ages 10–up. (Oct.)
Making history come alive for young readers
Laurie Halse Anderson sometimes thinks her career as a children's author is too good to be true. She says she expects someone to tap her on the shoulder and say, "Honey, we gave you the wrong lifeyou're supposed to be an accountant, or shovel manure."
It's unlikely she'll need to brush up on her manure-shoveling skills, though. In the last decade, Anderson has written a range of well-received books for young readers, from picture books to young adult novels. She is perhaps best known for Speak, a 1999 National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor book that was adapted into a television movie.
A former journalist, Anderson says she was invited to help with the screenplay, but decided to leave it in the hands of the filmmaking team. She did take a small role, though: "I was the lunch lady. All I had to do was drop mashed potatoes on a plate, and it took seven takes. It made me realize I shouldn't give up my day job."
The latest result of Anderson's "day job" is Chains, a historical novel for middle-grade readers, set in 1776 New York City. "The idea grew out of a really compelling need to understand what slavery was like in the Colonial period," Anderson explains during an interview from her home in upstate New York. "I'm a Northerner and always thought it was a Southern thing, a Civil War thing. I had a lot of learning to do."
Isabel, the 13-year-old protagonist, was the first of the book's characters to make her appearance in Anderson's imagination. "I went to a marvelous exhibit called 'Slavery in New York,' and as I walked in, there were shapes of a man and woman made out of thin wire. Your eyes could almost go over them and not see them," she says. "I thought a lot about what it might've been like to be a person who was enslaved during a time when everyone around you was talking about freedom and libertyonly they weren't talking about you."
In Chains, Anderson describes the overlooked people who were sold into slavery and brought to New England by masters who, even as they worked to win freedom for a new nation, did not grant it to those forced to serve them. Chains is a suspenseful, sad and engrossing tale made all the more vivid by Anderson's devoted attention to detail, from the smells of the city to the characters' clothing.
The author takes a two-pronged approach to research: she begins by reading secondary sources written by historians. As the information takes up residence in her brain, the characters begin to make themselves known. "The magical part happens when a character starts to whisper . . . when I'm running or in the garden, and I hear the voice. Then, my task is to come up with characters and find a way to braid those characters with the historical events he or she is involved in," she says.
Anderson also looks at primary sources, such as newspaper accounts, letters and countless runaway slave advertisements. Then, she says, "I go through and make sure I have enough sensory details for my readers, who know a lot about video games but have no context for the 18th century."
In addition to providing education, entertainment and historical context, Anderson also believes her books can offer young readers something more: "I have a theory about historical fiction, particularly for middle-grade readers," she says. "Fifth grade or so is a time before you get into the really difficult challenges of late adolescence. Books allow kids to test themselves out against a scary world, but in a safe wayand historical fiction allows kids to test their morality, too."
There are plenty of moral questions in Chains, but Anderson is careful to keep things from being too cut-and-dried: sometimes even cruel people can inspire sympathy, and a decision that seems beneficial may have negative consequences for others. Anderson says these paradoxesand their role in historyare well worth exploring. "My editor and I have had such incredible, good conversations about America and race. How can we love our country and our history when there are things that make us uncomfortable?"
She adds, "We came to the conclusion that the best way to love our country is to look at things that are uncomfortable, look them full in the eye and say, 'Wow, this is making me squirm. I need to learn more about it, take those lessons and move forward.'Ê"
Readers who want to move forward along with Isabel (and Curzon, a young man and Patriot slave who becomes her friend and ally) will be glad to know there are two related books in the works, Forge and Ashes.
"History can be so boring, but if you tell a story, kids will remember," Anderson says, "and they will learn."
Linda M. Castellitto writes from North Carolina, one of the 13 original Colonies.