Isabel’s Chains

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2008

Since reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel Speak, I’ve been wanting to read more by her. I picked up Chains during the Calgary Reads Book Sale and it sat on my shelf for a while. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it, quite the opposite. Chains follows Isabel, a slave in America during the 1760s, almost exactly one hundred years before the Abolition of Slavery in 1865. I knew this before reading it, and this is why I wasn’t rushing to pick it up. I knew Abolition wasn’t going to be the saviour in this story, so I assumed this would be a difficult read, especially with no promise of a happy ending (freedom) for Isabel. And I was right about it being a difficult read. But reading about slavery, even if it is historical fiction, shouldn’t be an easy read. Isabel’s story should make us uncomfortable and incredibly sad. And I shouldn’t want or demand a happy ending to make myself feel better, because for millions of once breathing human beings, who lived their entire lives as property, there was no happy ending.

Chains is incredible and different from other historical fiction about slavery in America I’ve read for several reasons. Often in narratives on this topic if it isn’t Abolition that swoops in to save the protagonists, its a caring white character. There are of course exceptions to this where the African slave does somehow manage to achieve freedom on their own, but even then usually there are some white characters who help them to do so. This often makes me uncomfortable, because it still places the power of agency strongly in white instead of black hands. Chains in much different.

The novel takes place during the American Revolutionary War. Both the rebel Americans and the British loyalists make promises to Isabel that if she passes on information, listens in on her masters’ conversations, finds valuable papers in her master’s home, smuggles information between those in prison and those on the outside (all things that could cost her her life if caught) they will secure her freedom. These are all empty promises. Both the rebels and the loyalists ultimately prove not to value Isabel’s life or their promises to her because she is a slave. Isabel realizes she cannot rely on these men for help, and she must take deadly risks to help herself.

There is a powerful scene in which an elderly aunt of the family that owns Isabel confesses on her deathbed the regret that she did not try harder to buy Isabel from her niece and nephew: “I should have demanded you be placed in my household. I was horrified by your treatment . . . I regret I did not force the matter” (261). Silence hangs in the air after this confession, and Isabel realizes the aunt is waiting for Isabel to expresses forgiveness, or gratitude. However, Isabel expresses something powerful to the reader “I tried to be grateful but 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” (261). Here Isabel refuses to allow a slave owner to be cast as her guardian angel. Isabel will take charge of her own destiny.

Chains is a powerful novel that I would highly recommend. It is a thrilling narrative, and gives the opportunity of having a history lesson at the same time. If you become attached to Isabel and her journey (which is hard not to) you can continue with her as Chains is part of a trilogy called The Seeds of America Trilogy.