The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Book Review: Chains

While browsing my favourite section of Barnes & Noble last year (the only bookstore in our area), I kept finding myself drawn to a collection of books written by Laurie Halse Anderson. They were all listed as historical fiction, and one of them, Fever 1793, was one I had seen regularly in the classroom collection section of my school library. But the books that kept catching my eye were two sitting side by side: Chains and Forge.

I think the thing that caught my attention most was actually the cover of Forge. Even though I knew nothing about any of these books, I could tell that this particular book took place during the Revolutionary War. The pose of the silhouetted figure was a familiar image from the terrible winter at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.

Even though these books caught my attention, it was actually several months before I finally caved to the internal pressure and purchased all three books.  I asked teacher friends online about the books and received mixed reviews, so I set them aside as possible reading over the summer. (As a matter of fact, I purchased them on 12 October 2013 but didn’t read until June of the following year!) As soon as I finished reading the first book I picked up the second, trying to decide which would be better suited as a read aloud for my class. Once I finished Forge, eight days after I finished Chains, I knew I was going to read the first book in this series to my class this year. I also knew I was going to plan it to coincide with our unit on the Revolutionary War.

There were several reasons I chose to use Chains. First, it is the first book in the series, so that just made sense. Second, it presents the story from the point of view of a slave girl, which is considerably different from the typical period story about soldiers, politicians, and/or members of the Sons of Liberty or people who associated with them (such as Johnny Tremain.) A third reason I selected this story is because it took place in New York instead of Massachusetts. Finally, I admit to choosing it because it had received several awards, my wife had strongly endorsed the author, and it was a modern selection.

For those who have read this far and are really wanting to just know what the story is about, here is the summary from Ms. Anderson’s website:

If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?

As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight… for freedom.  Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate, become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel.  When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion.  She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a beautiful, captivating, engaging story of a girl whose greatest wish is to gain freedom. In the process, she meets allies and friends, enemies and the indifferent, learns of broken promises and false hopes, but also maintains an intense desire to be her own self.

As I finished reading the book to my class today, my principal happened to walk in for a moment. She got to see how my students responded to a description of Isabel rowing a boat long into the night, the oars creating blisters on her hands, the blisters popping, then forming and popping again. And yet Isabel is strong. Years of hauling firewood and toting water across town, coupled with her intense desire to be free, gave her strength to push on.

Now that we have finished this story, I find myself wishing I could let my class write letters to Ms. Anderson to share their thoughts and ask her their questions. However, I know how busy she is, especially with writing Ashes, which is the last book in the series. So I guess I’ll need to content myself with sharing this blog post with her and hoping she knows how much fourth graders loved her book!

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