Chains (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

7 12 2010

Historical fiction for children is a daunting task. As a writer for “children” you obviously want to tell an imaginative story (because children usually love creative and fantastic settings and storylines), but you also want children to get a fairly accurate idea of the time period you’re writing about.  How to accomplish that great fusion of the ‘imaginative’ and the ‘historically accurate’ is something adult writers like E.L. Doctorow have taken a patent out on. Their work has been recognized, rewarded, researched, PhD’d on, and other such academic stuff. Though Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains did win a prize (Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction), the fact that the 2009 Newbery Medal – probably still the most prestigious American children’s award – went to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (btw, an *excellent* read!), seems to prove my point that it’s not just children who often  prefer  ‘fantasy & imagination’ over ‘historical faction’.

In Chains, Anderson blends the story of a 13-year-old slave girl (Isabel) with the events of the American Revolutionary War. After their mother’s death, Isabel and her 5-year-old sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist couple, who take them away from their familiar surroundings, to their house in New York. The reader gets a fairly accurate image of what New York must have looked like in 1776, not just by what happens to the siblings, but also by the extracts taken from historical documents, private letters, etc. at the beginning of each chapter. Especially inspiring to Isabel is a book she gets from a bookseller (yes, Isabel can read): Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. For a black slave girl who’s just lost her mother and her sister, who’s been branded as Insolent, this incendiary reading material confirms her most hidden instincts: she has the right to be free from people like the Locktons. No person should ever own another.

What makes this book so special is a combination of things. First, even though this book is about ‘slavery’, it’s not set in the bad bad South, but in New York. At first, this may seem as weird as reading about black slave owners (Edward Jones’ The Known World – definitely a book to read if you haven’t already!). But of course, not everything was as black and white as we think it was (no pun intended). Second, this book is also not set during the American Civil War (wouldn’t it make sense to talk about a slave’s quest for freedom in the era of Abolitionism?), but during the Revolutionary War, when ‘loyalties’ were being tested, even (and especially) those of the many slaves in the South and the North. Anderson presents us an incredibly balanced book: whose side are you on? Whose side were the slaves on? Were they on the side of the rebels, the “good” American Patriots, who are fighting for freedom from the British?  Or the side of the “bad” Loyalists who promised to free slaves that were on their side (provided they hadn’t escaped from Loyalist slave owners, of course). It’s a dilemma that also Isabel has to deal with.

Good historical fiction crosses boundaries and that’s exactly what we get. It’s this well-balanced mix of a (fictional) individual’s quest for freedom against the backdrop of a (factual) nation’s fight for freedom and independence from its ‘foreign’ oppressor that makes of Chains a prime example of what good historical fiction should be.

Note: Something I recommend for any teacher out there: the extensive Q&A with Laurie Halse Anderson at the end of the book (mostly about the historical accuracy of the book) is well worth reading!

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2 responses

4 04 2012
Sverige

This story starts when the revolutionary war begins. It is a story about two slave girls, Isabel and Ruth, and their fight for freedom. The main character of the story is the oldest of the two girls, Isabel, and the story is seen through her eyes. It depicts all the struggles and hardships they go through and yet they still remain optimistic and hopeful that one day they will be free. This is a book that I could hardly put down. I became engrossed in her story and I learned some History from it.

23 01 2013
Blending in or standing out? « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] American culture and universal human values” ? I’d argue that in e.g. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains there’s plenty of appreciation of the African American culture. The same might be true for the […]

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