Black History Month Review of “Chains” by Laurie Halse Anderson

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

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


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8 Responses to Black History Month Review of “Chains” by Laurie Halse Anderson

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This does sound excellent and I’m glad to see that it includes the fact that people all over the country owned slaves. It is so hard for me to comprehend that those people actually thought it was acceptable to own another human being.

  2. I loved Chains — I thought it was such an interesting look at the conflicting values in the Revolution. And of course I love a book about sisterly devotion.

    (Poor freed Patriot slaves, on so many levels! Loads of them died in settlement camps — the British didn’t wish them ill, they just couldn’t be bothered finding proper places for them to live, and then they all had to go to Canada after the British lost the war, and a bunch of them died there, and THEN they all went out to settle Sierra Leone, which was its own whole kettle of fish.)

  3. Vasilly says:

    I’ve seen Chains around but didn’t have any interest in reading it until now. It sounds like a fantastic read. Instead of checking it out from the library, I think I’ll buy a copy for me and my daughter.

  4. Amy says:

    I’ve been maning to read this book and, after reading your review, I’m going to try to get a copy this weekend. It stuns me to read the number of people who owned slaves and how they were treated. It’s really disturbing. It’s ingenious and helpful that Laurie Halse Anderson includes the facts behind the story in the Appendix. I might read that part first! Sometimes I find it hard to believe that this country during slavery, wartime and more is the same country we live in now. I often wonder what people living during those times, would think of our country now, over the last decade.
    Great post, thank you!

  5. Trish says:

    How did I not know about this one?! I loved Speak and Wintergirls but this one must have slipped past me somehow. Certainly a lot to learn about humanity at it’s worst–it’s really difficult to wrap my head around the mentality.

  6. I love Laurie Halse Anderson and really want to read this one, too.

  7. aartichapati says:

    I need to read this one. I had it from the library but had to return it unread. Not next time! I love the cover itself. All of this author’s books are on such fascinating topics.

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    Wow. That cover really gives me pause, in a positive way. I need to get a hold of this one.

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