Thursday, June 14, 2012

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008)

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has many similarities with The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Both were written in 2008. Both are the first book in a trilogy. Both have a young female protagonist raised in a society that abuses them. Both of these young girls have a younger sister to look after. Here the differences end. Where The Hunger Games is futuristic, Chains is historical. Anderson does a much better job of developing her main character, who isn't shy about talking about how she feels about her society. Chains was a National Book Award finalist and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and it has a hero who actually tries to do something about her situation. Yet this novel was much less read than The Hunger Games, though perhaps that's because it's escapist, where Anderson's novel faces a historical reality some Americans still don't like to discuss: slavery.

Upon the death of their mistress, Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to the Locktons, despite Isabel's claim that their mistress' will should have left them free. The Locktons are British loyalists, and they make a return to a rebel-held New York, where there is a sizable slave population. The rebels suspect the Locktons are Tories, and for this reason Curzon, a slave boy to the army commander, asks Isabel to spy for them, promising her freedom. Isabel is hesitant, unsure of who to trust.

Her sister, Ruth, becomes a personal maid to Mrs. Lockton, which worries Isabel because her sister is simple and prone to seizures and Mrs. Lockton is not a very nice lady. This serves as Isabel's biggest concern until it escalates into a confrontation. In the meantime, Isabel also finds herself dragged into Curzon's spy games, and it doesn't take any sneaking around or listening in secret because Mr. Lockton and his fellow Tories discuss their plans right in front of her, as though she's just another piece of furniture. Another key character is Lady Seymour, the aunt to Mr. Lockton, who is much more kind to Isabel than Mrs. Lockton. Also of mention is Isabel's only friend in the house, a servant named Becky, though their friendship isn't built on very solid foundations. War soon disrupts everyone's daily lives.

Isabel is a very strong character, and smart, not entirely helpless to her situation. Mostly she finds it best to obey her mistress, as many slaves did, but we also see her sneaking off to do her own thing, or rebelling in some other small way, and sometimes rebelling in much more dangerous ways. Anderson does a good job of showing what it must have been like to be a slave. Isabel does not simply acquiesce to her mistress' demands, but she fights or cheats if forced to go against her own values. She also contemplates her situation and has her own ideas about it. This is something I wish I saw more of in The Hunger Games.

This is a very well-researched historical novel. Anderson uses a neat literary trick to make it feel like it is a true story, where she inserts quotes from real historical documents at the start of each chapter. These quotes parallel the main story and make it seem as though Isabel was pulled straight out of a real historical narrative. Anderson also taught me a few things I didn't know about slavery and the Revolutionary War, rather than just regurgitate the same old thing.

I will admit the novel does sometimes feel detached, though it is written from Isabel's perspective. It felt as though Isabel was more historian than slave at times, and when the novel should have been emotionally involved it seemed at too much of a distance. I cared about Isabel, but her narrative voice brought me to the present, to the now, rather than to the past, where it belonged. Though this may sound like an odd criticism, I think the writing was perhaps a little too refined.

Still, I would highly recommend this book. If you have not read much, or anything, about slavery, this is a good start. It isn't too graphic, though some terrible things do happen, and it has a lot to teach. Even those who have read everything about slavery will be intrigued by it. Its setting, in Revolutionary War-era New York, is fascinating. I also don't know how many novels about slavery spawned sequels. Just as the novel started to become a little sleepy, its exhilarating conclusion slapped me wide awake and had me excited to get my hands on the next book, Forged.

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