US history as seen through the eyes of a young slave girl.

Chains By Laurie Halse Anderson Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $16.99 Ages 9-12

A new novel for young readers knocks on the conscience of a nation. Chains, a finalist for last month’s National Book Award, tackles America’s need for self-reflection. It also offers a re-examination of history and a new sense of national identity.
These are ambitious aims for a children’s book. But award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson explores these themes as relentlessly as a bird pecking open its shell.

“Chains,” which is set in New York City, takes readers back to the beginning of the Revolutionary War, dredging up a past that seems unthinkable to contemporary America, even as it requires readers to think through the many ambiguities that have formed our nation.

Anderson uncovers fascinating texts and histories and deftly forges a new story with an unlikely hero: a Northern slave girl whose only mission is to protect her younger sister.

As General Washington leads America in its quest for liberty, 13-year-old Isabel strives to secure the freedom promised to her and her sister, Ruth. Liberty and justice are not guaranteed by those in power, however, and Isabel’s fate worsens when she and Ruth are sold to the Locktons, a wealthy but cruel couple in New York.

Rare moments of mercy
Even with the promise that the patriots would help her gain her rightful freedom, Isabel “cared not a fig for politics nor soldiers.” But later, as she frequents the prison on her daily trip to the water pump, Isabel begins to realize her allegiance spreads beyond the borders of politics to those who have shown her rare moments of mercy.

The Locktons, affluent and respected in their social circles, conceal their allegiance to the crown but not the abuse of the girls in their possession.

In fact, cruel Mrs. Lockton flaunts her power to inflict emotional and physical punishment on her personal slave, both at home and in public. She changes Isabel’s “ridiculous” name to Sal and has her cheek branded with the letter I for “insolence.”

In her richly researched portrayal of Revolutionary America, Anderson explores the complexities of human nature and this war in particular. The inhumanity of slavery remains clear, but Anderson does not paint this conflict as a black-and-white case of good versus evil.

Not all the patriots in this story behave like heroes. “Ladies” sometimes act more ferociously than beasts and so-called “enemies” or tyrants can surprise with acts of mercy given or withheld.

For the servants and slaves caught in the middle, loyalties can change as easily as the tide.

Like the seeds Isabel brought from home in Rhode Island and planted in secret behind the New York house, her first-hand experiences of injustice and cruelty help to germinate her own rebellion. She draws on seemingly boundless reserves of forbearance, courage, and strength as she ponders and then dares to act on the question, “If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?”

This book seems poised to become required reading in every fifth-grade classroom. “Chains” offers a perfect springboard for classroom discussion and history lessons.

But don’t dismiss it as academic fodder.

Battle scenes and politics, heroic acts and secret plots fill its pages, making it as exciting for readers who prefer action (as do many boys) as it is inspiring for those more drawn to stories about people and relationships (as girls often are).

Fiction that stirs new ideas
This is historical fiction that is both emotionally wrenching and thought-provoking. Interestingly, it arrives on the scene at the same time as Volume II of “The Astonishing Life of Octavio Nothing, Traitor to the Nation” by M. T. Anderson, another book for young readers that also examines slavery in the context of Revolutionary War-era America.

Like “Octavio Nothing,” “Chains” grabs hold of readers and does not let go until it stirs new considerations about slavery as an unconscionable yet integral part of our national heritage.

But Anderson also knows how to temper brutality with a few moments of tenderness and mercy, which, sprinkled like light rain on parched earth, are just enough to offer hope of a fresh start.

Enicia Fisher writes about children’s books.

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