Retro Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson Reviewed by Brian Wyzlic

If you’re familiar with Young Adult Literature over the last 10-20 years, you know the name Laurie Halse Anderson. If you’re familiar with shiny stickers on books, you’ll recognize a few on her 2008 middle grade historical fiction novel Chains: National Book Award Finalist and Scott O’ Dell Award for Historical Fiction Winner. There would be more stickers on the cover shown if they wouldn’t get in the way of a wonderfully designed cover even 100 Scope Notes would be happy with. This story covers the time of the beginnings of the American Revolution. You all know of the American Revolution, right? The colonies fighting for their freedom from the tyrannical British? The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, all that jazz? And it makes sense, really, why we would want to learn about it and remember it. The American Revolution is about not putting up with injustice. It’s about casting aside the chains of oppression and fighting for your God-given rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It’s about a people uniting and overthrowing those who held them down.

Provided you were a white male, that is. And our narrator in Chains happens to be a black female.

And she’s a slave.

Thirteen-year-old Isabel lives in New York with her sister, Ruth. They were supposed to have been freed after their previous master died, but that documentation was nowhere to be found (and nobody was looking very hard). So they’re slaves, still.

Their new owners are Loyalists to King George, which is a fascinating viewpoint to me. We so often hear about the American Revolution from our current American perspective, that we might forget that the revolution was just that — a revolution. It had to be hush-hush. So when we are put in this Loyalist perspective, we can see the gathering of information Isabel does, and the sneaking around she does, including with another slave by the name of Curzon (who provides just the right touch of romantic interest for Isabel).

Because this story is told through first-person narration, we really get some insight into what it’s like to be in Isabel’s shoes. The questions that go through her mind are revealing. She doesn’t like being under British rule, but who’s to say American rule would be any better? If she’s a slave either way, does it matter? With neither side really respecting her dignity as a human, whose should she be on? And what about her younger sister, Ruth? Can she be free? Will they stay together?

The fact is, there aren’t many books out there that are enjoyable and really look at the American Revolution from the perspective of the slaves. To my knowledge, there’s one: this one. And it nails it. But, as with all great books, this is more than just a well-told story. It’s a wonderfully crafted novel.

Laurie Halse Anderson is on top of her game here. For me, this is her greatest book, from a literary perspective. Yes, better than Speak, Wintergirls, Twisted, and all the others. Her use of metaphor, both standard and extended, is superb. There were several moments as I was reading the book that I burst out in a smile because of how perfect the wording is. And if you’re looking for dramatic irony through parallel plot lines, this book is oozing with it. And then to remember that this is a work of fiction, but it could very well be 100% true, makes the history come alive.

If you’re looking for an American Revolution book that’s not Johnny Tremain and will really get you thinking, give Chains a read. It’s probably best for grades 5-8, but certainly reads below and above that range.

Brian Wyzlic, who turns 28 this afternoon, is a 7th and 8th grade Literature, Religion, and Math teacher in Ann Arbor. When he’s not contemplating the nature of space-time, he can be found on Twitter at @brianwyzlic and on his blog at Wyz Reads. Okay, sometimes he might contemplate the nature of space-time there, too.