This historical fiction book is the first in the "Seeds of America" series by Laurie Halse Anderson and is published by Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division.
Chains is written for kids ages 10 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Thirteen-year-old Isabel Finch was promised freedom upon the death of her mistress. But when she dies, the mistress's greedy nephew sells Isabel and her 5-year-old "simple-minded" sister, Ruth. The girls become the property of Mr. and Madam Lockton, New Yorkers who stand with England in the impending Revolution. Isabel meets a slave boy named Curzon who convinces her she can earn her freedom by spying for the Patriot forces.
Madam Lockton, a wealthy and self-absorbed Loyalist, dislikes Isabel and renames her "Sal." When Madam witnesses one of Ruth's epileptic fits, she's convinced the girl is possessed. She eventually sells Ruth behind Isabel's back. Isabel pleads for assistance from Patriots she's been aiding, but they do nothing to help find her sister. Instead, they allow her to be punished for disobeying her mistress. Isabel has an "I for Insolence" branded on her cheek, and she is dragged through the streets behind a horse cart. After losing her sister and suffering so much physical pain, Isabel grows depressed and hopeless. She becomes convinced that neither the Loyalists nor the Patriots will help slaves like herself.
As the American Revolution begins, British forces lodge in the homes of Loyalists, including the Locktons. A massive fire engulfs the city, destroying hundreds of homes, shops and churches. Isabel saves Lady Seymour, Mr. Lockton's aunt, and serves as a nurse for the old woman. When Isabel learns Curzon has been imprisoned while fighting with the Patriots, she secretly begins bringing him and his fellow soldiers food scraps. The Patriot prisoners are sick and hungry with few blankets to go around. Madam is furious when she learns of Isabel's trips to the prison, but Lady Seymour covers for Isabel by saying the visits were her idea as an act of Christian charity. When Madam catches Isabel passing messages for the Patriot commanders, Isabel flees. She rescues the ailing Curzon from prison, gets a small boat and rows them out of New York to Jersey in search of Ruth. The story continues in the next book, Forge.
Isabel says the pox took Mama home to Our Maker and that Ruth was a tiny baby, not even baptized yet, when they were sold. Isabel sometimes prays for comfort or help. She also prays that a colonel who betrayed her will fall ill and die a terrible death. Later, as she becomes increasingly discouraged by her circumstances, she stops saying her prayers. She fears the Spirit has left her. When she can pray again, she says she feels cleaner than she does after taking a bath.
While sneaking around to help the Patriot forces, Isabel says she tries to be brave like Queen Esther in the Bible. Isabel recalls how Mama always read from the Gospel of Matthew at Christmas.
A preacher, Bible in hand, is present and speaks a few words at the hanging of a traitor. As the man is killed, the captain of the guard says, "May God have mercy on your soul." One servant says the damage to the British army proves the Lord is on the side of the Rebellion. Isabel hears a cannon blast that makes her wonder if God is fixing to blow the island apart.
Isabel compares Madam's Anglican church, with its incense and ministers in fancy clothes, to her own Congregational church at home, which had 10 pews and a preacher who always wore black. The slaves have to sit upstairs in Madam's church, but Isabel felt she was closer to God that way. She mentions that the sermon included a lot of "beseeching." Madam has a brief period of remorse when the reverend's wife tells her the Lord will punish her for being hard on her servants. Lady Seymour tells Madam that forgiving and caring for the enemy, as Isabel is doing, is the Lord's work.
Other Belief Systems
Isabel talks to ghosts, especially her mother. Her mother once told her the best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun rises because that's when they can answer. Mama said ghosts can't move over water, which is why kidnapped Africans became trapped in America. When Isabel and Curzon escape, she thanks Mama's ghost for her help.
Madam complains when Isabel dusts a china dog and then faces it toward the door. She says this will cause a family's luck to run out. Isabel repeats a secret code that will help her gain access to the rebels until it feels as if it were a prayer in her mouth. Isabel suggests George Washington is a conjured man.
When Isabel tries to escape from Madam, she's tied to a horse wagon and dragged through the street. Madam has Isabel's cheek branded. A servant describes the soldiers' campground, talking about men's arms and legs being blown off or removed. She describes the stench, the moaning and groaning and the maggoty wounds. Another slave describes a battle in which cannons blew arms, legs and heads everywhere. After a fire in the city, Isabel sees many bleeding, charred, half-naked bodies. She says the task of finding bodies was so disgusting that it caused grown men to scream aloud. Some people are hung during the fire. One hangs from his heels with his throat slashed.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- To whom does Isabel look as examples when she needs courage?
- What courageous acts does she perform?
- What draws her out of her depression and puts her back on the path of action and bravery?
How does she feel after she's prayed for help?
What eye-opening book does Isabel read?
- Why does the bookseller tell her that Thomas Paine's Common Sense is filled with dangerous words?
How do these words impact Isabel?
What does freedom mean to you?
- What would be the hardest thing about having to serve someone else?
What aspect(s) of freedom would you miss most if you suddenly became a slave?
Which characters see Isabel as property?
- Which see her as a person? How does the latter group treat her differently?
What do they see in her?
What does the old man at the water pump mean when he talks to Isabel about crossing the river Jordan?
- What rivers, real and figurative, must Isabel cross?
Which biblical characters crossed the Jordan River, and why did they cross it?
In what ways is Isabel in chains?
- In what aspects of her life does she realize she can still make her own decisions?
What does she mean when she says Madam can't hurt her soul unless Isabel gives it to her?
Should Isabel have deceived Madam to help the Patriots?
- What does the Bible say about lying?
- Are there ever times when deception can be justified? Explain your answer.
Alcohol: Isabel serves wine to Mr. Lockton and his guests. Lockton and friends go to a tavern for a night of beer drinking and pipe smoking. The soldiers staying at the Lockton home drink a lot of beer. Madam "muddies" herself with wine when her husband leaves the city.
Lying and stealing: Isabel tells prison guards that her friend Curzon is her brother so she can bring him food and care for him. Isabel starts to steal money from Lady Seymore, but the old woman tells her she can have it. Isabel consistently deceives Madam so she can help the Patriots.
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Readability Age Range
10 and up
Laurie Halse Anderson
Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division
National Book Award Finalist, 2008; Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2009