Chains Summary

Chains is a historical fiction novel about Isabel Finch, an enslaved young girl growing up during the American Revolutionary War.

  • Isabel and her younger sister, Ruth, are promised freedom but instead sold to the cruel Locktons, a Loyalist couple in New York City.
  • Curzon, an enslaved boy who works with the rebellion, tells Isabel that if she spies on the Locktons for the Patriots, they may free her and Ruth.
  • Madam Lockton sends Ruth away and has Isabel branded, and Curzon is imprisoned. Isabel passes on information to the Patriots and ultimately escapes with Curzon to New Jersey.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Chains is a historical fiction novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. The narrative follows Isabel Finch, an enslaved teenager, growing up during the American Revolutionary War.

When the story begins, Isabel and her younger sister, Ruth, are accompanying the funeral procession of their recently deceased former owner, Miss Mary Finch, to the cemetery. When they arrive, Isabel quickly visits the grave of their mother, Dinah, who died of smallpox the year before. Isabel asks her mother’s ghost for advice, knowing the significance of this event—per Miss Finch’s will, Isabel and Ruth are now to be freed.

When Isabel mentions this to the pastor, Miss Mary’s nephew, he blanches. He—Mr. Robert Finch—insists that there is no will and that Isabel and Ruth, along with the rest of Miss Mary’s estate, now belong to him. Despite her protestations, the pastor concedes, and Mr. Robert quickly sells the two to a new couple they encounter at an inn nearby: Master Elihu Lockton and his wife, Anne, who insists that they call her “Madam.” “Two for the price of one,” he assures the Locktons in chapter 3, “Hardest-working girls you’ll ever own.”

The Locktons take the girls from Newport, Rhode Island, to New York City, where they have an unexpected confrontation: Bellingham, a high-ranking member of the rebellion, meets them in port, demands to search their cargo, and threatens to arrest Lockton for his loyalty to the British. The Locktons deny the accusation and leave the cargo to be searched, taking only Madam’s underthings. They tell Isabel to fetch water with Curzon, Bellingham’s enslaved boy, and meet them at home—one of the largest and most expensive in the area.

As he shows her around, Curzon asks Isabel to pay attention in her new home—the Locktons are Loyalists, and she may overhear something that would benefit the rebel forces, who, in turn, might help free the sisters. “New York is a ball tossed between the Loyalists and Patriots,” he tells her in chapter 4, “Right now the Patriots hold it. Lockton has returned to hurt our cause.”

At the Lockton home, housekeeper and cook Becky Berry begins to prepare Isabel for her new life. Madam Lockton has taken a liking to Ruth, she tells her, and plans to train her as a lady’s maid. Isabel, on the other hand, will work as a housemaid under Becky’s purview. Warning Isabel of the extent of Madam’s wrath when disobeyed, Becky tells her a cautionary tale: several years before Isabel and Ruth, the Locktons had another enslaved girl at the house. “She talked back,” Becky confides, “. . . [Madam] beat her with a fireplace poker.”

When Isabel serves a group of men Lockton has invited over one day, she realizes why Madam’s trunk was so important: they’d used it to smuggle money into New York. They have enough, he tells his guests, to bribe half the rebel army into joining them. Isabel realizes Curzon was right—these men don't even see her, which means she can overhear all sorts of things. That night, realizing freedom may be within reach after all, she sneaks out to tell Curzon what she saw.

Bellingham and his men arrive at the Lockton home for a search. They find nothing in the house but arrest Lockton on suspicion of aiding the enemy. Madam sends Isabel to inform Lockton’s aunt, Lady Clarissa Seymour. Lady Seymour is much kinder than Madam Lockton and feeds Isabel cookies and milk before sending her back.

Lockton returns to the home, and Isabel hears the Loyalists plotting in his library yet again—this time, the mayor is involved, and the plan is violent: they aim to assassinate General George Washington. “Cut off a vine and it will grow back,” the mayor insists, “you must pull it out of the ground and burn it to ensure it is dead.”

When Ruth has a seizure one day, Madam is terrified. Despite Isabel’s protestations that it’s a medical condition, Madam insists that Ruth is possessed by the devil. Certain it must be a curse, she hits Ruth with a broom and decides to sell her at once. Lockton refuses to sell Ruth and demands that his wife calm down, but Madam is unconvinced. “She will work in the kitchen with Becky,” Lockton tells her, “That is my decision.”

Fearing their safety and hoping to facilitate a way out, Isabel sneaks out to inform the rebels of the plot to assassinate Washington. Soon, word gets back to Lockton—an unknown party has leaked the plan, and he’s in danger. He burns his papers and runs away, promising Madam that he will return when it’s safe. Before long, British forces arrive on the coast to fight the rebellion.

After an uncharacteristically friendly gesture of cake and sweetened milk from Madam one night, Isabel sleeps especially deeply. When she wakes, she realizes she’s been drugged—while she slept, Madam sold Ruth to a family of physicians bound for Nevis. They’ll know how to take care of her, Madam insists.

Isabel is enraged. The two have a fight, and Isabel flees. She’s soon caught, and the judge allows Madam to decide her punishment, suggesting a lashing. Madam, vengeful, insists on something much longer-lasting: she wants Isabel branded with an “I,” for “insolence.” Isabel is taken to the stocks and branded on the cheek. When she wakes, she’s recovering at Lady Seymour’s house and learns she’s been asleep for six days.

After Isabel returns to the Lockton home, the war intensifies. Civilians begin to flee, and their homes are quickly filled with soldiers. As the British start to gain territory, Lockton returns, bringing several soldiers and their wives to be quartered in the family home. Madam sends Isabel to help Lady Seymour, who has quartered a dozen Hessians from Germany.

When the Hessians leave, Isabel prepares to return to the Lockton home. Before she can, Lady Seymour’s neighborhood catches fire, and Lady Seymour is too weak to escape the house. Isabel drags her out of the house, saving her. Lady Seymour is moved into the Lockton home to recover, where Isabel tends to her.

As the winter grows colder, Isabel learns that Curzon has been captured and is in a nearby prison, where he’s freezing and starving. She begins sneaking him table scraps and soon finds herself passing messages for the rebel army in the hopes of keeping her friend alive. Word spreads among the rebels, and a shopkeeper gives her a slim volume in secret: a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

Madam discovers that Isabel has been seen talking to a high-ranking member of the rebellion on the street, and is absolutely furious. They have a fight, and Madam shocks Isabel by revealing that she still owns Ruth and can still punish her for Isabel’s bad behavior. She hits Isabel repeatedly with a riding crop, telling one of the quartered soldier’s wives to lock Isable in the potato bin until Monday, when she will be sold. Tonight, Madam has bigger plans—there’s a celebratory ball for Queen Charlotte’s birthday, and she is much too busy to deal with Isabel. ­

Isabel escapes the potato bin, says a quick goodbye to Lady Seymour, and flees the Lockton home intent on rescuing her sister. She heads for the prison and manages to smuggle the near-dead Curzon out in a wheelbarrow. As the celebratory fireworks distract the nearby soldiers, Isabel loads Curzon into a canoe and begins rowing frantically across the river in the dark. She wakes the next morning to discover they’ve found land: they are now on the banks of New Jersey.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapter Summaries