This 2008 finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature provides an excellent portrayal of what slavery was like in the American North at the time when those same northerners who were white were fighting for the “self-evident” truth that all [sic] men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Isabel is a 13-year-old slave in Rhode Island who has lived, along with her 5-year-old sister Ruth, with a fairly progressive master; she was even taught to read. When that woman dies in the spring of 1776, her greedy nephew refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a provision in the woman’s will freeing the two girls. He sells them to a couple, the Locktons, from New York City.
Although it is sometimes assumed that all Americans were avid about gaining independence from Great Britain, it is estimated that only 40% of colonists were behind the revolution. The Locktons were some of the many so-called Loyalists, who did what they could to undermine the rebels and aid the British.
Mrs. Lockton is petty and vicious, and much to Isabel’s consternation she takes Ruth, who is “simple,” as her personal slave. But when Mrs. Lockton witnesses one of Ruth’s “fits,” she sells her. Isabel is desperate to escape slavery so she can go find Ruth. At the urging of a young slave boy she met named Curzon, she agrees to help spy for the Americans in the hope they will help her secure her freedom. It isn’t easy to sneak around, however, given that Mrs. Lockton had Isabel’s face branded with a big I for “insolence.”
But Isabel, plucky and resourceful, is determined to make that “I” stand for “Isabel”.
Discussion: Although this is an excellent and engaging story, and a very accurate look at what life was like during the revolutionary ferment in New York, the best part of the book for me was the Appendix. There, the author, in a question and answer format, gives the historical facts underlying the story. She tells us, for example:
“On the eve of the Revolution, one in five colonists – 20 percent of the population – was a slave: approximately 500,000 people. Most of them were held in bondage in the southern colonies, but slaves were owned by everyone from farmers in Albany, New York, to shipbuilders in Newport, Rhode Island, to bakers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to merchants in Boston, Massachusetts.”
She also provides background on Isabel’s particular dilemma as someone helping the Patriots but who was a slave of Loyalists. The British had promised freedom to slaves in order to wreck the Patriot economy, but of course they would not want to hurt those who were loyal to the Crown. Patriot slaves were even given to Loyalists as rewards.
Meanwhile, the Patriots, whether sympathetic or not to the plight of slaves, refused to interfere with Loyalist “property.” Isabel was not only chained in the sense of having no ownership of her own life, but even “chained between two nations.”
The Appendix, while short, is an excellent recounting of revolutionary times in New York during the historic years of 1776 and 1777.
Evaluation: While marketed as a book for youth, I think this is an excellent, moving, and inspiring book for all ages.
Published by Scholastic, Inc., 2008
IRA Teachers’ Choices booklist for 2009
Selected by Indie Booksellers for the Winter 2009 Kids’ List
2008 Booklist’s Editors Choice-Books for Youth
2008 National Book Award Finalist
2009 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction
2009 Top 10 Black History Books for Youth
2009 Notable Children’s Book