Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

She cannot chain my soul.

We have had Chains in our library for over a year but oddly I kept bringing home the sequel.  As is my usual pattern I thought I might read a chapter or two before bed.  At 3am I was still reading and by 11am the next day (after a little sleep) I finished this breathtaking book.  I don't give ratings but this is a ten out of ten book.  I can hardly wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

Before you read my thoughts about Chains click on this podcast and listen to the first section where four US students talk about their reactions to this book and you can also hear from the author.

Coming from Australia I am largely ignorant about the American revolutionary war of 1776 and I knew nothing about the events in New York city.  Thanks to Laurie Anderson I not only feel I know a lot more but I feel as though I have truly been transported back in time as a witness. More importantly I have 'walked in the shoes' of a slave gaining a little insight into these events from her point of view.  Laurie Anderson is able to touch every sense with her writing.  I could hear, see and even smell every scene.

Isabel and her very young sister Ruth are slaves.  Their mistress dies and the pair are sold to a couple from New York City.  The wife, Mrs Lockton, is a cruel mistress.  The scene where they are taken from Newport is heart wrenching. Isabel must leave her dead mother behind knowing she cannot follow :

"Momma said that ghosts couldn't move over water.  That's why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. ... All of Momma's people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn't follow and protect her"

You can listen to a little of the first chapter here.  You can read more details of the plot here.  The author web site has excellent teaching notes.

Isabel is made to work so hard in the Lockton house but she makes one very important friend.  A young boy named Curzon.  He never gives up on Isabel and when events conspire against him, Isabel shows her own deep loyalty.  Both have been lied to and double crossed but they will find freedom.

Here is a scene where Isabel has been sent to fetch water.

"The cut on my left hand pained me too much to use it, and my right hand was not big enough, I journeyed in a crow-hop fashion - carrying one bucket for twenty strides, setting it down, then returning to fetch the second bucket and carrying it forward to meet its partner.  ... Curzon joined me. He would not look at me.  Didn't say a word, neither. He simply carried the buckets to the Locktons' gate for me, then walked away."

Chains is at times quite a violent book and so I would recommend it for experienced readers aged 11+ and all adults.  There is a harrowing scene where Isabel is branded, she is regularly beaten and her visits to the prison are filled with threats and horror.  On the other hand it is clear so much research has gone into this carefully crafted book. I loved all the little domestic details such as the opulent dinner given when the British arrive.

"The cook had prepared enough to feed a battalion : pheasant stuffed with figs, stewed oysters, potted larks, greens cooked with bacon, pickled watermelon rind, and buttered parsnips."

"... the dessert tray - rice pudding, lemon biscuits, two creamed pear tarts, and an iced cake"

Here is a review from the School library Journal - well worth reading.  Click the links at the bottom of this post to read two more reviews.

Chains disproves the notion that a children’s book written for the middle reader set can’t have complexity and interesting characters. Best of all, it’s a great read.

This is a lovely novel - about big issues and big stories, but never losing its focus on individual people. Isabel is a captivating central character, treated abominably and reaching depths of sadness today's children are unlikely to ever experience, but she never loses her spirit. She's enslaved in every possible way, but never stops being her own impulsive and sometimes hot-tempered self, and somehow ... she manages acts of kindness and generosity that are utterly heroic.

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