Forge (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

12 06 2011

Laurie Halse Anderson set the standards very high for herself with Chains, the first installment of the Seeds of America trilogy. In Chains we encountered Isabel, a New York slave at the beginning of the American Revolution, and her personal – desperate – need to be free against the backdrop of a nation’s quest for freedom from a foreign oppressor, the very same setting that also M.T. Anderson used in his majestic Octavian Nothing books, by the way. Chains’ sequel Forge – though not really focusing on Isabel, and definitely not another scientific experiment – is another proof of what a literary giant Laurie Halse Anderson really is in the realm of historical fiction in general, and the YA-universe in particular.

Set a little bit after the end of Chains, Isabel and Curzon soon separate. Isabel’s primary goal is now finding her sister Ruth, something Curzon can’t see happening anytime soon. From then on the story and especially the voice is all Curzon’s, as we follow him becoming a soldier in the Patriot army after being caught up in the battle of Saratoga. The circumstances take a turn for the dramatic once the troops set up their winter camp at Valley Forge. Completely unprepared for the extreme winter conditions, Laurie Halse Anderson creates a historically accurate literary universe for the soldiers that resonated with the cat much in the same way as the episodes in Band of Brothers when showing the harsh winter conditions during the Ardennes Offensive.

This testifies to the vividness of the imagery that Anderson is able to use: from eating squirrels to making firecake (firecake and water for breakfast, firecake and water for dinner), you’re reading true history, but sensitively interwoven with the touching story of a slave trying to be free in a war that shouldn’t be his in the first place. Interweaving your fictional characters’ tales in the tales of actual historical figures like George Washington, Nathaniel Green etc. as well as real events (the battle of Saratoga, the winter of hardship at Valley Forge) is of course nothing new[1]. In this way, Forge is like another False Documents, attesting to the importance of seemingly minor events in the grander scheme of things. Anderson’s strength, indeed, lies in highlighting the lesser known aspects of the American Revolution (slaves fighting for both sides).  Her books are clearly researched extensively, but they never feel like another historical lesson, nor does it become a self-conscious or self-referential exposé about the American Revolution. Instead it always remains a poignant tale of people in unusual circumstances, especially made acute by the narrative voices of the protagonists.

Though the elements to teach are clearly there (the extracts from true historical sources at the beginning of each chapter, for instance, which are invariably a comment on or an addition to Curzon and Isabel’s story), Anderson is able to create characters that will linger long after you finish reading the book and maybe even forgotten that those primary sources were there in the first place. The primary sources put things in context, but never detract from the story of Curzon (and Isabel).

Winning the Margaret A. Edwards Award meant the cat is not the only one to recognize Laurie Halse Anderson immense talent to tell a story, linking personal histories to contemporary society and the world at large. Forge too deserves all the praise it has received so far, and the cat, for one, is looking forward to the conclusion of the Seeds of America trilogy. However, I’m sure that not an award in the world can show an author’s pride as much as realizing that your book is read, re-read, used, and re-used in households, classrooms and libraries.

P.S. Teensy tiny point of criticism: the cat much prefers the (original?) American cover of both volumes to the ones on the copies she read. Especially the cover of Forge makes you think that this story will be about Isabel, while actually, this is clearly Curzon’s tale.

[1] The self-conscious & highly self-referential version of this type of fiction, historiographic metafiction, is something that an author like E. L. Doctorow has become famous for, and rightly so. The cat would argue that Laurie Halse Anderson is very much in the same acclaimed league!



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