Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Chains
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Genre: Young adult historical fiction

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

The story opens in the Rhode Island of May of 1776 with Isabel, our narrator and a young slave, walking to the graveyard for the funeral of her late master (mistress?). Unfortunately with her passing, her estate is in the hands of her nephew, who is greedy and kind of awful. Isabel soon finds herself sold to New York along with her younger sister.

The book wastes no time in getting down to business: my heart was in my throat. As the book goes on, Laurie Halse Anderson does a great job of juxtaposing the freedom from slavery that Isabel yearns for with the freedom from Britain that the American colonists want. One of my favorite features of the book was how she started every chapter off with some primary source material—correspondence between historical figures, an ad for a slave, or excerpts from papers of the time, for instance. It helped to create the backdrop of the novel, to hear the time in its own words. While the story is told from the point of view and voice of an individual, the author still gives a sense of the scope of the history and politics of New York City in 1776-7. The historical details she works in were pretty neat (did you know high class ladies once glued mouse fur strips to their eyebrows and then fluffed them up to make them “busy and thick as the fashion required”?). It is also honest about slavery in the North—“by the middle of the [1700s], New York had the second highest percentage of slaves in the colonies after Charleston, South Carolina,” Anderson writes in the Q&A appendix in the back of the book. Often slavery is passed off as a Southern thing. And while the economics of slavery were a bigger deal to the South than to the North, as this book shows, slavery was well accepted in the North of the “rah rah freedom independence” Revolutionary War. Even characters who “don’t hold” with slavery stand by and let it continue. Any positive feelings toward slaves are merely a result of being interested in what slaves can do for them rather than an investment in challenging slavery even in any small, insignificant way. Despite this maddening indifference and injustice, Isabel struggles and resists.

My least favorite parts of this story were, I think, a function of the genre. I think I would have loved this book when I was younger, and as it is, I liked it a lot as an adult. It reminded me of some of the “Dear America” series I read in elementary school, which I loved. My least favorite thing was probably how it was so obviously set up for a sequel. I know that’s a “thing” in YA literature these days but it’s frustrating to finish a book only to be left with loose ends and lead ins. It was a solid, well-told story nonetheless.

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