I know Chains is a slightly older book (published in 2008), and it got a lot of acclaim already, but until this past summer, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it, despite a number of kids telling me I absolutely needed to. So I’m a bit late to the party of praising this book to the skies, but I can’t resist joining in anyway.
First, something to know about me: I most emphatically did not like historical fiction until I became a librarian and started forcing myself to read it. I think this is because I didn’t like studying history as a kid (couldn’t remember all those dates!); the association with a class I consistently struggled with just shut my mind like a trap. But over the last six years, the genre has really grown on me, and I must say I know a lot more about history now than I ever thought I would, thanks entirely to historical fiction novels and the curiosity they have sparked in me. Stick an interesting and compelling kid in the middle of an important historical event or time, and suddenly it all feels real in a way it never did in the textbooks I had, and I find myself wanting to know more about the reality behind the fiction.
Isabel is just such a kid, and her place and time are New York during the Revolutionary War. (Who knew how much was going on in New York during that time? I’m sure I never did!) Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are slaves who have been promised their freedom upon the death of their owner, but instead, they end up in bondage to a cruel Loyalist family living in Manhattan. The novel follows Isabel’s efforts to gain freedom in the midst of an ever-changing political climate.
What I loved about this book:
-Isabel. She might be the strongest, most compelling girl character I’ve ever seen in middle school fiction. She faces more hardship than a person like myself could even imagine, and sometimes she has to blank out her emotions as much as possible in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but her strength is nothing short of stunning. My heart broke for her over and over, as my admiration for her grew.
-The history. Yes, I loved the history. I loved learning about the Revolutionary War, and what it was like for slaves in New York during that period. The politics fascinated me, and trust me, if I am fascinated by history and politics, you can be assured that the vehicle delivering that information is top-notch.
-The complexity. This isn’t a simple good vs. evil kind of plot. Good folks allow bad things to happen, and it’s not any easier for the reader to see where Isabel should turn than it is for Isabel.
I’ll stop there, because I’m getting too wordy already. Suffice it to say, this is a must-read.
Note for parents: I read this with my 10-year-old, and I think it’s a really wonderful book to read to your child, or alongside them. A strong reader can definitely handle it on their own, but for the younger middle school set, I would suggest reading it yourself as well. There is a lot to discuss, and in our house, a LOT of questions came up about slavery, the poor treatment of slaves, betrayal of trust, and all sorts of Big Topics along those lines. This is the kind of book that, when kids read it, they want someone to talk to about it.