Chapter 1 Summary

As Chains begins, a slave girl named Isabel is on her way to the funeral of her owner, Miss Mary Finch. Isabel’s little sister, Ruth, is mentally disabled, so she gets to ride in the wagon with the coffin and the pastor. Isabel herself is big and strong enough to walk. As she nears the cemetery, she asks permission to run up ahead.

Mr. Robert Finch, Miss Mary’s nephew, seems annoyed by Isabel’s request. As he considers it, she reflects that she never met him until a few weeks ago, when he suddenly appeared for a visit. He immediately noticed his aunt’s sickliness and decided to stay for a while. Isabel is sure that his motives for doing so were not sentimental but financial. She reflects that Miss Mary “wasn’t even cold on her deathbed” when Mr. Robert began taking her coins and possessions. Now Mr. Robert is rushing his aunt’s funeral, not even giving the neighbors time to pay their respects as they normally would. He says that he does not want to stay long in Rhode Island. It is not Isabel’s place to criticize him for any of this, so she says nothing about his actions. However, she does ask again if she can go ahead to the cemetery. Mr. Robert reluctantly agrees.

Isabel rushes past the part of the cemetery where the white people are buried. She enters the small, fenced-off area that is set aside for black graves. She goes straight to the back of the yard, where her mother is buried. On her way there, Isabel reflects that it has already been a whole year since Momma died of smallpox. Isabel and Ruth both bear smallpox scars, but both of them survived their illness.

All her life, Isabel has believed that ghosts may appear and speak to their relatives at dawn. Kneeling, she asks her mother to “cross back over” to the living world and give her some advice. A long-awaited day has arrived, and Isabel does not know where to go or what to do. Momma does not appear. Isabel pleads with her. She even leaves an offering of oat cakes and honey—but no ghosts come. All Isabel sees are birds and butterflies. Could Momma’s ghost be angry because Isabel did not know how to hold a proper funeral? What will Isabel and Ruth do now, without Miss Finch and without Momma?

Isabel is startled out of her thoughts by Mr. Robert, who grabs her hard by the arm and shouts at her for failing to hear him the first time he called. Cringing from the pain of his grip, she says she is sorry. He releases her and tells her to go to the white part of the cemetery. “Go pray for her that owned you, girl,” he says.