Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson’s 2008 historical fiction novel, is the first of three books in the young adult Seeds of America series. This volume introduces protagonist Isabel, an enslaved girl living in the Revolutionary War–era colonies, and Ruth, her little sister. The sisters are denied their expected freedom at the beginning of the novel due to a prior owner’s greed, and the rest of the story traces Isabel’s fight for their promised liberation and justice in a country at war.
Throughout the narrative, Isabel and Ruth—considered property rather than people—change hands multiple times and are both subject to repeated cruelty and inhumanity at the hands of their masters. This harshness is amplified by their wartime backdrop, where violence is common and loyalties are shifting and precarious as a rule.
To make this difficult subject matter accessible to her intended audience—young adults, who may be grappling with their own internal conflicts as they contemplate adulthood—Anderson writes in the first person, telling the story from the perspective of a young woman coming of age in a time of deep uncertainty. As Isabel negotiates the harsh nuances of the world around her, intent on finding a pathway to liberation, she’s forced to weigh the risks of involvement with her own safety and resolve.
Similarly nuanced is Anderson’s approach to the story’s antagonists. The novel’s primary villain, Madam Anne Lockton, is a woman of unquestionable cruelty, and the author offers her very little in the way of redemption. The motivations of the other characters, by contrast, are slightly more complex. In one notable instance, when Ruth has a seizure and Madam wants to sell her, Madam’s husband, Elihu Lockton—a demonstrably abusive character most readers would also consider an antagonist—reprimands her for her cruelty, reminding her that the two girls are sisters and insisting that Ruth remain in their home.
In an inverse example, the waning Lady Seymour—who, by and large, is fond of the girls and would likely be considered by most readers to be one of their strongest allies and advocates—asks Isabel to sit down so she can confess something to her before she dies. With great regret, she tells Isabel a difficult truth: that she wanted to buy the two of them from the Locktons from the very moment they met, but didn't fight Madam Lockton hard enough. Even at the beginning, she tells Isabel, she knew they would have a better, happier life if they’d been placed in her home instead.
Isabel, taken aback, does not know quite how to accept this confession. “It would have eased her mind if I thanked her for wanting to buy me away from Madam,” she muses in chapter 40. “I tried to be grateful, but I could not. A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.” With this confession, Lady Seymour thinks she’s admitting an act of kindness that went unrealized. To Isabel, however, she’s confirming something very different: her unquestioning adherence to the institution of slavery. “Did she never think about setting me free?” Isabel wonders, reflecting on the incident in chapter 41.
By allowing characters to occupy this complicated middle ground, Anderson illustrates something crucial to understanding American history honestly: while it may be easy, in retrospect, to attribute the atrocities of the past to clearly delineated “good” people and “bad” people, the reality is often more complex. Even an antagonist like Elihu Lockton might show a moment of humanity, just as a sympathetic character like Lady Seymour might also be complicit in the brutal and inhuman practice of slavery.
In a 2017 School Library Journal interview on the series, Anderson emphasizes the importance of depicting history with honesty, reiterating the through line between the injustice in the colonial era and the racial justice issues that persist in present-day America:
So many of the problems we deal with in the United States today—racism, injustice, disparities in education, economic opportunity, access to clean water and air, to name a few—stem from the choices made in the late 1700s by wealthy white men. They chose to build a nation on the backs of enslaved families. They fought a war for the lofty ideals promised in the inspirational language of the Declaration of Independence, but failed to live up to them. Once all Americans acknowledge and understand this history, we can get to work on building the nation that we promised ourselves.
This point not only emphasizes a reader’s need to view figures of the past with an openness to nuance, it reminds them to maintain that openness when having critical conversations in the present day. Though the institution of slavery has been left behind, systemic racism survives today because of that same nuance and complexity that Anderson demonstrates with Lady Seymour, Elihu Lockton, and the other dueling entities throughout Chains—if “good” people and “bad” people were so easy to cleanly define and isolate, America would not still be suffering persistent racial injustice.