One-Minute Book Reviews

December 5, 2008

A 13-Year-Old Slave Seeks Her Freedom in 1776 in Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Chains,’ a National Book Award Finalist (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #3)

A black teenager in New York City hopes to win her freedom by exposing a plot to kill George Washington

Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., $16.99. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a fictional 13-year-old owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776.

Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

This well-written and beautifully designed young adult novel brims with interesting period details that serve a worthy theme: What is freedom? Why did white colonists, as they fought for independence, tolerate the enslavement of blacks?

Chains also has action so fast-paced — and at times over-the-top — that it borders on soap opera. Isabel joins the Locktons after her former owner breaks a promise to free her and her sister. She is beaten, thrown into a dungeon, hauled before a judge, put in stocks, and branded on the face with an I (for “Insolence”) after she tries to flee. She sees a hanging, the great fire of 1776, and dead bodies stacked at a prison that houses her friend Curzon, a former slave. She hears of a throat-slashing, a bayonet execution, and other atrocities.

Laurie Halse Anderson recounts all of this with an evenness of tone that robs her tale of some of its impact. Telling her story in her own voice, Isabel speaks matter-of-factly, whether she is describing her owners’ evil deeds or a rare joy such as the news that Curzon has survived a battle. Each new trauma gets the same emotional weight, a trait that places the book closer to high-quality genre fiction or a good newspaper story of long-ago events than to art. Chains describes Dickensian horrors without the Dickensian pathos. You follow Isabel’s story raptly, but you don’t feel nearly as much for her as you should.

Best line: Among the many good period details: “Madam opened an envelope and shock out two gray strips of mouse fur, each cut into an arch. Leaning toward the mirror, she glued the mouse fur onto her own eyebrows, making them bushy and think as fashion required.”

Worst line: “My bones were hollow sticks; my brainpan empty.” “My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.” This repetition of a nearly identical line on back-to-back pages suggests a either a cutting-and-pasting oversight or that Halse Anderson couldn’t decide where to put or how to punctuate the line.

Newbery/Caldecott assessment: It will be interesting to see what the Newbery judges do with this one. Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html. So it should get serious attention from the Newbery judges. But it has so much violence that, although none of it is inappropriate in context, you wonder if the judges might consider it instead for the Michael Printz Award, given to a book for older readers.

Published: October 2008. Chains is the first book in a series about Isabel that will continue with Forge.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book of monologues and dialogues Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village. A review of and reading group guide to the book appeared separate in separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 26,2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

Furthermore: Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com. She lives in Mexico, New York.

Other posts in the “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Awards” appeared on May 10, 2008 (Pale Male) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/ and Nov. 22 (Zen Ties) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/.

Janice Harayda is a former judge for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She has reviewed children’s books for more than a decade.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s ‘Chains’ — Tomorrow

Coming tomorrow: A review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which involves a 13-year-old slave who lives in New York during the Revolutionary War and devises a dangerous plan to escape from her cruel Loyalist owners. The review is the latest in the “Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Medals” series on this site, which looks at possible candidates for the American Library Association prizes to be handed out on Jan. 26.

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