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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,299 words.)