Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson

This is one of about five billion books my father got for my mother for Christmas.  My mother loves to get a bunch of books for Christmas, so this year my father made a humongous effort to think of and buy books for her that she would enjoy, so at the end of the day she’d have a great big stack of new books to read.  What’s nicer than that, eh?  And I swiped it today and read it on the drive to the farm for our family Christmas.

(Hm, that paragraph sounds ridiculously wholesome.  I made a sneery face at Riley on Buffy when he said something similar.)

Laurie Halse Anderson never fails to write unsettling books.  Chains was unsettling.  But excellent.  It’s all about a girl called Isabel, who is a slave at the time of the Revolutionary War.  At the start of the book, she and her five-year-old sister Ruth (who is not well, physically and mentally) are supposed to have been freed in her late owner’s will, but of course things don’t work out that way.  They’re sold to a Loyalist couple in New York, and loads and loads of things happen with the War and slavery and many other issues.

Here is something about slavery that never fails to upset me hugely, no matter how often I read about it: how people with slaves would randomly change their names and just call them whatever name they felt like calling them.  When Isabel’s mistress started calling her Sal, because Isabel was too hard to remember, I almost quit reading the book.  But then I started feeling melodramatic and reminding myself that if for heaven’s sake I could get through Beloved which I didn’t even like, I could certainly get through Chains.  Yeah, and also her being unable to protect her sister, because she’s a slave and she doesn’t have a right to anything.  That also was upsetting.  I had just spent the day playing with my small cousins, so I guess it affected me more because of that?  Or maybe I’m just a pansy?  I mean I am definitely a pansy.  Beloved made me sick to my stomach.  I am no good at reading books about slavery.

I was also so struck by the Revolutionary War business.  Imagine being there for that.  What a thing it must have been, that Revolutionary War, a whole country of people deciding that, actually, they didn’t want to be British anymore, and instead they would go ahead and become this totally new thing, American.  A totally new thing.  I am so impressed that anyone even thought of that.  That is just – wow, that’s quite a thing.  Making up a new identity, which is what they’d have had to be doing, writing a whole new story for the colony that would make it into a country.  I don’t know how anyone even thought of doing it.  And then they came up with the Constitution!  I really do so very genuinely admire the much-touted founding fathers, in spite of all the crap they were pulling all over the place, being hypocrites and sleaze-bags and so forth.  Coming upwith the Constitution, well-done them!  The First Amendment’s genius, eh?

This is actually a major push-and-pull in the book, between the slavery (permanent national shame) and the Revolutionary War (freedom and liberty, finest hour, founding fathers).  It’s interesting.  I couldn’t stop reading Chains, and after we got home from the farm, and I wasn’t quite done with the book, I (this is a true story) told my sister we would have to put off watching Doctor Who until I had finished with it.  Mind you, we were in the middle of an exceptionally creepy and suspenseful episode with shadows and a massive library and a rubbish kissy-face future girl (ugh, I didn’t like her), and furthermore we are both desperately curious about what on earth is going on with Rose, and whether she and the Doctor will be joyously reunited, and still in spite of all that I had to finish reading Chains first.

In sum: I couldn’t put it down, and it made me think loads of interesting thoughts about slavery and the Revolutionary War.  What else can you ask for from a book?  Hurrah for Laurie Halse Anderson.  I can’t decide whether this was better or worse than Speak, or just exactly as good, so you might want to go ahead and just read them both.  My professional opinion.

  • I need to give this one a try, especially since I’ve recently had a refresher history lesson in Revolutionary War and founding fathers (working through the US Presidents Reading Project).

  • I definitely will read them both. Fantastic review.

  • jennysbooks

    Andi and Nymeth – I’d be interested to know what y’all think. I kind of liked Speak better, but I read that one all snuggled cosily in my bed, and I read Chains sitting in the middle seat of a small car.

    Annie – I completely agree with what you say about Anderson’s writing being fresh without being anachronistic. I thought the whole thing was extremely well done.