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Book Review of Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

October 5, 2011

The college students I teach as well as readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of Laurie Halse Anderson, a children’s writer whose versatility and range continue to amaze me. I’ve interviewed Laurie in this space and met her at Society of Children’s
Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) events. She does it all:  picture books, middle grade, and YA . . . and she keeps it interesting by writing in lots of genres, from impeccably researched historical fiction (like Fever, Laurie’s first historical novel) to lighthearted teen novels (like Prom, set in Northeast Philly) to gritty realism for older readers (like Speak and Wintergirls).

I just finished her first novel in the Seeds of America series by Atheneum Books for Young Readers which is slated for children 10  years old and up.  I guess that includes me.  The novel came out almost exactly three years ago in 2008.  I wonder what took me so long to read it.  It centers on the life of 13-year-old slave Isabel who is both motherless and fatherless and finds herself with responsibility for her younger epileptic sister when the girls are sold to the cruel Locktons, a wealthy New York City couple who are anything but sympathetic to the Patriot cause. Isabel quickly meets Curzon, a slave with connections to the Patriots,  who soon has her acting as a spy on her new owners.

Read the first paragraph for a terrific example of a fine beginning:

“The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. That’s when they can hear us true, Momma said.  That’s when ghosts can answer us.”

Isabel’s travails are nothing short of searing, yet she manages to keep her wits despite the “buzzing bees” of her melancholy.  When her sister Ruth is sold – an unthinkable separation for Isabel – she is pushed onward in her quest for freedom, not the freedom so yearned for by the Revolutionaries but the freedom from slavery that will allow her reunion with her sister.
For an 18th century American slave, “freedom” is a loaded word – especially to a young girl who has been branded, both literally and figuratively, by her life experience.  Anderson’s tight prose speeds along, her meticulous  research evident in every page of this novel, a National Book Award Finalist.  The life of a kitchen slave in a wealthy household during the 18th century is riveting, as is the street life of New York as the Revolution sweeps through the city.  The historical issues are not simplified here, nor are the characters black and white.  And the language is beautiful.  The second book in the series, Forge, is next on my list.  This 2010 novel is told from the point of view of Isabel’s friend, 15-year-old male African American Curzon, an interesting twist to the dual narrative I wrote about in my last blog.  Somehow I’m sure this switch in narration will work!

To visit Laurie’s blog, go to http://madwomanintheforest.com/historical-chains/

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 4:46 PM

    Excellent review, Gretchen. It’s heartening to know that there is a wealth of fine, new literature being produced for young people.

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