Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, is a young adult novel. The main character is Isabel, a thirteen-year-old slave who works for the Locktons, a Loyalist family in Manhattan with her sister, Ruth. Isabel suffers under the cruelty of Mrs. Lockton. She is a mean and miserable woman who herself is abused by her husband. The relationship between she and her husband is both physically and verbally abusive.
The fate of Isabel and her sister have always been entwined with slavery and the opportunity for freedom. Miss Mary Finch, their previous owner in Rhode Island, had promised their freedom before she died. She also had taught her slaves to read and write. When Miss Mary Finch died, there was no written proof of her promise of freedom. As a result, her nephew inherited her estate and promptly sold Isabel and Ruth to the Locktons. When they are waiting to be sold, Isabel considers running way. Jenny, an Irish servant, warns Isabel not to flee. Isabel often rethinks that decision.
The novel takes place in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. England is taking over New York City. Isabel is confused about whether to aid the Loyalists or the Rebels (Colonists). Slaves are used by both sides. Isabel soon discovers that the Loyalist and Tories both support slavery. She and a group of women hear the rumblings of the American Revolution. Master Lockton and the Tories are planning to end the rebel uprisings.
The Rebels approach Isabel and offer to help her find her sister (who was sent away) and promise her freedom. Curzon, a slave, persuades her to spy on her owners who have information about a British invasion.
Each chapter begins with an advertisement, handbill, newspaper article, or letter from the period. Quotes from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and excerpts from letters from Washington, Franklin, and Adams appear throughout the novel. These elements provide a sense of the time and place for the reader and help posit Isabel’s position in these critical historical events.
Reviewers enjoy Anderson’s fast-paced novel and presentation. The work is well researched and offers a look at slavery just as the United States was developing.