Details about Ruth, the younger sister of the narrator of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Chains emerge gradually as the story progresses, but they do emerge. Ruth is Isabel’s five-year-old sister ("She is five years old . . . and you sold her away from me"), who suffers from epilepsy. Both girls have also been exposed to and developed symptoms of Small Pox, which had killed their mother, evident in the following passage from Chapter 1:
“Small pox is tricky,” Miss Mary Finch said to me when Momma died. “There’s no telling who it’ll take.” The pox had left Ruth and me with scars like tiny stars scattered on our skin.”
Indications that Ruth suffers from multiple conditions creep out slowly, as when Isabel comments later in that chapter that “Ruth stayed in the wagon, her bare feet curled up under her skirt and her thumb in her mouth.” It is in Chapter 3, however, that more information is revealed regarding Ruth’s health. Isabel, in her narration, describes her sister in terms that suggest mental impairment as well as a potentially serious neurological condition:
“Ruth was simple-minded and prone to fits, which spooked ignorant folks. Noise could bring them on, as well as a state of nervous excitement.”
Later in the novel, after Isabel and Ruth have been purchased by the Locktons, a cruel couple, Ruth experiences another of her seizures, to which Madam Lockton responds in terror:
“She has the devil in her!” “No, madam, it’s an illness!” I cried. “An ailment, nothing more.” Madam brought the broom down on the small twisted body. Ruth couldn’t raise her hands to protect herself. The seizure held her fast . . .”
That Ruth’s “fits” are, in fact, seizures caused by epilepsy is confirmed in Anderson’s “acknowledgements” to those who aided in her research on the era depicted: “Thank you Forrest Ainsile of Philadelphia for the information about the treatment of epilepsy.” Epilepsy was a seriously misunderstood ailment for much of human history, with epileptic seizures commonly mistaken for signs of Satanic possession or for mental illness. Ruth’s seizures, skin lesions from the small pox, and refusal to speak for the first part of the story all lead the whites who cross the girls’ path to interpret these as signs of simple-mindedness, which makes her expendable. When Ruth is sold again and moved to the West Indies, separating her from her older sister and caregiver, the trauma is heartbreaking.