Monday, November 10, 2008

National Book Award Finalist: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

If I opened the gate, I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from a master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.

I leaned my head against the gate. I could not open the gate but I had to open the gate. This house was not a safe place. I had to get out. But there was no way to run with a litle girl. The secret of Madam's linen chest was the only key I held.

Watch over me, Momma.

I opened the latch, slipped out the gate, and ran.

Liberated by the will of their dead mistress, Isabel and her little sister Ruth should have been set free, but Miss Mary's lawyer has fled north to join the Boston patriots, and her greedy nephew is in a hurry only to bury his aunt and pocket the proceeds from her property, including her thirteen-year-old house slave and her simple-minded baby sister. Isabel and Ruth are sold to the Locktons, rich Tories who take the girls to work in their house in New York City.

New York in 1776 is a town of 20,000, one-fifth African slaves, a cauldron of divided loyalties among both Rebels and Loyalists. General Washington and his Continental Army are bivouacked not far away, and rebel soldiers fill the streets and are billeted in many a house. Paine's Common Sense, with its radical idea of equality for all, has a contraband circulation even among slaves, while Loyalists like the Locktons hide their sympathies and pray daily that the British fleet will return and take over the strategic port city which separates the rebellious New England and southern states.

Isabel cares little for the partisan conflict, only wishing to find a way back to Rhode Island and her promised freedom. Both sides publicly offer freedom to slaves who join them, but their promises seem mostly honored in the breech. But when Curzon, a young slave boy who serves the Rebel cause, urges Isabel to report any Loyalist plans she overhears in her master's house, Isabel finally does so, slipping out after midnight to meet with Curzon and tell him of a cache of gold destined for the King's forces concealed in Madam's linens. Although the Continentals act on her information, Isabel's pleas for freedom as her part of the deal are put off by the officers to whom she confided, and her life with the Locktons grows more dangerous each day.

When she is told that Madam Lockton has sold her little sister into bondage in the West Indies, Isabel confronts her mistress openly and and is forced to flee from the house, only to be captured and branded with an I for "Impudent." Despairing of help from the Americans and dubious of aid from the British, at risk to her own life Isabel secretly continues to bring food to her friend Curzon and the rebel soldiers imprisoned after the British take over the city. When she is discovered carrying messages between Patriot officers, Madame Lockton declares that she will sell her to the cruelest owner she can find in the South and locks Isabel in the cellar to await her fate--certain death unless she can somehow make her final escape.

My eyes would not close. My thoughts were churned up like muddy water, with dangerous eels thrashing through it.

If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?

Laurie Halse Anderson's just published Chains returns the Newbery Honor author (for Fever 1793), to her "seeds of America" period to tell a deeply affecting story of the tumultuous first days of the Revolution, a story which pulls no punches in depicting the mixed motives of both sides and which spares the reader little of the gritty true story of life in those early times of our history.

A finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Literature for Young People, Chains, is a must read for lovers of both history and the novel, true as it is to the best of both.

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  • I recently saw her speak at The Bookies in Denver. She was delightful. As most authors do she talked about the writing process. I came away with a great idea for my students. when she does her first "draft" she jst makes a list of ideas. Sometimes they are full thought, but sometimes they are simply one word lines. I shared this with a couple of struggling writers. They love it. PS I enjoy your blog.

    By Blogger Kyle, at 6:09 PM  

  • Dear Kyle,

    To me, Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the more impressive young writers, with her breadth of style, depth of research, and understanding of the human heart.

    I'm thinking that this novel might be the NBA winner, with the Newbery going to THE UNDERNEATH, by Kathi Appelt, a book that gave me the brain shivers when I read it. But who knows?

    By Blogger GTC, at 9:36 AM  

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