Friday, January 9, 2009

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

I was on the plane back home from the US. It was December 30th. I was in seat 16A and there was no one in 16B but I couldn’t spread out because the armrest between the two seats was stuck. There was a baby screaming bloody murder in the background.

Oh, and the girl across the row kept giving me meaningful glances, which…thanks, but no thanks.

Couple all of that with my general inability to sleep in an upright position and it was—well, you can imagine: The kind of tragedy only a really, really great book can fix. The one I chose was Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

With her mother dead, Isabel doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her sister Ruth and her. At least she’ll be free, as her late mistress stated in her will. Except—she’ll later find out—no one can find the lawyer who has the will in hand, so she’s sold along with Ruth to a strange couple. These people—particularly the mistress, referred to as Madam—are absolutely heartless and deprive both girls of more than just freedom: of their sense of self.

“If an entire nation can seek its freedom, why not a girl?” As you can tell, Chains deals with many contradictions: Why a nation on the verge of asserting its freedom still kept the practice of slavery; why the British—the opposing force—granted freedom to slaves who resolved to help their cause; and how Isabel, a literate and unusually bright slave girl of her era, could be living under circumstances where even reading, as she described it, was a crime. While Isabel is a fictional character, many important figures (like George Washington) are featured, the chapters are all prefaced by letters and texts from that time period, and there is a plethora of authentic details, all of which provide a sound historical context to anchor her creation.

I’m constantly in awe of Laurie Halse Anderson. Here, she created not only a compelling voice of enslaved and confused protagonist whose abuse made my blood boil, but also an antagonist—Madam—who aggravated me in a way that only slave-owning can and yet still managed to win a smidgen of the briefest sympathy from me at Madam’s most vulnerable, while she was being abused by her husband. It takes skill to do that, especially since slavery, what I consider to be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of human cruelty, gets a huge rile out of me.

Another thing that amazes me about Ms Anderson is her versatility. This is an issues novel, make no mistake, but it sets the stage for all types of audiences. Isabel’s only thirteen, which make her feelings—when she’s not lost to world—relatable and her tale readable to the younger crowd, and the seriousness and historical background raise many points of discussion for people of all ages.

So, yeah, this remedied the plane situation. Even with a cliffie ending, I’m giving it an A. It’s a real page-turner and inspiring all the while being devastating, and totally worth the hardcover price.

Simon & Schuster | 316 pages | October 21st, 2008 | Author Site | GoodReads | Amazon

8 comments:

Liv said...

I have a signed copy of this and need to read it. SOON.

Amee said...

Sounds good. Is it a series? You said it ends on a cliffhanger but I didn't know if it was like, "use your imagination to decide what happened" kind of end or not.

Steph said...

Yup! FORGE comes out this year :D It's amazing, Ames, you'll love it.

Steph

Alea said...

I'm not sure about this one but... i really really really really like the cover.

Taren said...

I think I'm the opposite of Alea. I like the sound of it, but I don't like the cover.

Great review, Steph!

Lenore said...

Not another awesome book that starts a series!! I can't keep up with all of them.

Reader Rabbit said...

Sounds great ;) but...a series
oh boy
=D

Okie said...

I loved Speak and I've been looking forward to Chains because it seems to have the same sense of tension in an intriguingly different element. I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

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