Friday, December 05, 2008

Liberty for All?

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
5Q 3P; Audience: M/J

By all rights, Isabel and her sister should be free. That's what it said in Miss Mary Finch's will. But Miss Finch's nephew refuses to believe Isabel or even to read the will. To him, Isabel and Ruth aren't girls, they're money in his pocket. To their new owners, Master and Mistress Lockton, they are hands, feet, and strong backs. They certainly aren't people.

It is particularly galling to be a slave when all around you the talk is of liberty, freedom, and independence. In 1776, those words were on every American's lips, though some spoke them with passion and desire and others said them with scorn and fury. Isabel and Ruth are caught in the middle of the battle, in more ways than one. The Locktons are Loyalists, true to the British Crown and up to their eyeballs in plots to bring the upstart Patriots to their knees. Curzon, a slave in a Patriot household, coerces Isabel into spying for the rebels. It is the Patriots, he tells her, who will give the slaves their freedom. If she throws in her lot with them, the liberty she craves will be hers. It is not an easy decision. The Locktons are not kind masters. If she spies and is caught, she will pay in ways too horrible to imagine. She isn't concerned only, or even primarily, with herself. Ruth is only five and prone to fits. If anything happens to Isabel, who will care for and protect Ruth? Still, Isabel burns with the desire to be free. It is worth taking the risk.

With the stakes are so high, it is all the more crushing when Isabel is forced to realize that the Patriots' passion for liberty is limited. Despite their fine talk and promises, the freedom they seek does not extend to slaves. They will not help her, and they will not protect her. Has she put her life and her sister's in jeopardy for nothing?


It is easy to understand why this book was nominated for the National Book Award (Teen category). It is beautifully written. Anderson excels in both character and plot, and her writing is graceful and compelling. Isabel is feisty, strong, loving, rebellious, and determined. She is often afraid but always courageous. She's no paragon, which makes her seem all the more real. Mistress Lockton and Lady Seymour are two sides of a coin, one loathsome and one as good as the times allow her to be, and both evoked visceral responses. Images of Curzon stay with me, too, as I picture him first cocksure and confident and then diminished by betrayal and circumstances. Because these characters are so vivid, even readers who are neither fans of historical fiction nor interested in the historical period will be swept up in Isabel's story. Anderson has the wonderful ability to drop nuggets of information into her story in a way that never seems forced or obtrusive. I knew New York was important strategically, but I didn't realize what a hot bed of Loyalists it was or that a great fire destroyed much of the city. I certainly didn't know about the enticements both sides offered to slaves and indentured servants in order to coerce their support, nor how often those promises proved false. This book does, of course, present those promises from Isabel's point of view, and certainly not every army officer (or founding father) consciously
used slaves' desire for freedom to their own advantage (consciously being the operative word here), with no personal regard for the slaves themselves. But Chains brought home to me forcefully and movingly the hope and heartbreak of having liberty so enticingly close, only to have it snatched away, as well as the irony of promising "liberty...for all" and giving it only to some.

I am glad that we will be hearing more about Isabel and Curzon in the future. I am not ready to leave them behind.

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