Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is yet another National Book Award finalist from this excellent author. Not as well known or as old as the Newbery Award, which is given by the American Library Association, the National Book Award is given to writers, by writers. This year's judges for young people's literature are Cynthia Voigt, a Newbery Award Winner, Angela Johnson, winner of three Coretta Scott King Awards, Holly Black, author of the Spiderwick series with Tony DiTerlizzi and Carolyn Mackler, a new author of teen fiction. The panel of judges is chaired by Daniel Handler, who goes by the pen name of Lemony Snicket. This may be the biggest award for children's literature you have never heard of, short of the Smarties, awarded in the UK, and also known as the Nestle Children's Book Prize. And, Chains was also named the 2009 winner of the Scott O'Dell Award For Historical Fiction.
Laurie Halse Anderson is a diverse writer. She has authored non-fiction picture books, like Independent Dames, the Vet Volunteer Series for young readers, several teen novels, including the impressive Speak, which won the National Book Award silver medal in 1999, and the exceptional Fever 1793, a historical novel for mid-level readers about the yellow fever epidemic that gripped the colonies. With Chains, Anderson revisits this genre, this time to explore the complex issues of slavery, freedom, revolution, loyalty and the maturation of the self - self-worth, self-interest and a personal sense of morality. While most historical fiction that has slavery as part of the plot is set during the Civil War era, Anderson chooses to begin her story on Monday, May 27, 1776. Interestingly enough, the winner of the 2006 National Book Award for young people's literature was The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson, no relation, which also examines slavery in the pre-Revolutionary colonies but in a much darker, more academic and esoteric manner. For an excellent review of Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves, see Jerry Griswold's article in the New York Times Book Review of November 7, 2008.
The heroine of Chains is thirteen-year old Isabel and her story begins in Rhode Island on the day of the funeral of her owner, Miss Mary Finch, who had strange notions. She taught her slaves to read and write and she amended her will to include the freedom of her slaves upon her death. Unfortunately, Miss Finch's unscrupulous nephew has inherited her estate and sells Isabel and her five-year old sister Ruth the same day as the funeral. Isabel and Ruth are bought by wealthy Loyalists, the Locktons, an taken to New York City. Isabel has her first notion that she should take her life into her own hands when she and Ruth are standing in the tavern waiting to be sold. But, Jenny, an Irish indentured servant now free and friend of her mother's, warns Isabel against running. Isabel follows her advice, but lives to regret it.
Once in the Lockton's home, their mistress proves to be a cruel, vengeful, vain woman who takes her miseries out on Isabel. And she does have miseries. In addition to anxiety over the coming war and the safety of herself and her husband, their marriage is a violent one, both verbally and physically. The glimpses into their relationship are well written and subtle and they provide not so much an understanding of the nature of Mrs Lockton - we will never truly understand how or why one person can be so brutal to another - but an added layer to her character that illuminates social norms of the time. Mrs Lockton also has a wealthier, better connected aunt by marriage, Lady Seymour, who is another thorn in her side. Lady Seymour is among a handful of characters who display ambivalent kindnesses to Isabel and her sister from time to time. In addition to these ambivalent kindnesses, Isabel is shown what amounts to indifferent kindnesses by servants, working wives of British soldiers, and Patriots alike. What struck me most about this book was the way in which Isabel was both invisible to all as a person and highly visible to all as a piece of property. Anderson does a superlative job of conveying this in every sentence she writes.
She also does a remarkable job of crafting the character of Isabel herself. Her voice is one that stays in your head, as do the words she uses to describe her experiences. After an especially barbarous act of violent punishment, Isabel says that, "Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul." This painfully beautiful image is among many that Isabel paints as she tells her story. When this nerve of sadness is touched from then on, she speaks of the bees buzzing in her brainpan. The language of the novel is quasi-historical. There are words and phrases unique to the time period, but Isabel never speaks or thinks in a way that sounds uneducated or ignorant. After all, this is a book for young adults, not a novel by Toni Morrison. Nevertheless, this book feels and sounds authentic from the beginning to the end. Anderson includes quotes from historical documents at the start of each chapter to ensure this. Some are from newspapers, articles and advertisements, official handbills, and letters. Excerpts from the missives of George Washington, John Adams, Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are also included, as well as quotes from Thomas Paine's Common Sense, which plays a key role in the book. Isabel's sense of self and understanding of her place in the world is bolstered by her reading of this incendiary, at the time, writing and it causes her to make a crucial decision that could cost her her life, but one that also allows her to give herself a name.
As I read Chains, the question on my mind every time Isabel had an encounter with a Patriot was, how could the rebels be fighting for freedom, declaring the right to freedom so passionately, and fail to acknowledge and address the slavery, the submission of another human being, that they were participating in? This is a fascinating question that Anderson begins to address. And, while the hardships that Isabel and Ruth are subjected to are almost too much to bear, I was elated to reach the last page of the book and see that there will be a sequel. The detail and depth that Anderson brings to her writing makes this time period so vividly intense that I felt like I could smell the fetid, infested prison and feel the bitter winter cold biting at my toes. And, while Isabel and Ruth are likable characters, it is hard to say that of any other characters in the book, save possibly Cruzon. The colonists she encounters, even those who sympathize with her plight, cannot do much to help or sustain her. Cruzon is a slave to a rebel official who suggests that Isabel spy on Mr Lockton is turned down by her almost immediately. However, when she begins to think that spying for the army could help her efforts to obtain her rightful freedom, she is disappointed and ignored at every turn, despite the information she provides and it seems as even Cruzon, who enticed her to spy, has abandoned her, but again, as a slave, what can he do?
The violence in the book can be intense and disturbing at times. When jacket flap mentioned an unthinkable act that befalls five-year old Ruth, I was prepared for something savage and deeply upsetting. What happens to Ruth is perhaps the least disturbing act in the book. The punishments that Isabel receives, at the hand of Mrs Lockton and the law, are shocking, but appropriately and accurately so. The few descriptions of the battlefield and the devastation of human life are the same. This is a very important period in American history, and the existence of slavery in America is a far-reaching subject that we will be dissecting for years to come. I think that it is vital that children, young adults, are made aware of this, and made aware of it in an immediate way, such as in a novel, as opposed to the sometimes dry textbooks they are given in school. I can think of no better way for a young reader to experience the inhumanity of slavery, yet maintain (or develop) a sense of compassion and hopefulness, than to spend 300 pages with Isabel as she struggles to be free along with the Patriots fighting for emancipation from the tyranny of the British Crown.
Lastly, Anderson includes an appendix at the end of the book that provides some very interesting historical facts, numbers and dates that went into shaping the story and the history of the United States.