Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chains (Seeds of America #1) by Laurie Halse Anderson

I never paid much attention to epigraphs in books. I liked them as much as epitaphs. Just kidding. I always have to look up "epigraphs" because the definition of "epitaph" has been in my "brainpan" longer than "epigraph." Never mind. I'll leave the wordplay up to Laurie Halse Anderson who is much better at it than me. (Brainpan is one o her many fun words.) Her beautiful writing swims with in-depth characterizations and historical details that bring this story to life - not to mention that the epigraphs are nice foreshadowing and provide an alternative viewpoint on the British-American conflict in the 1700's. The first person point of view comes from the protagonist, thirteen-year-old Isabel, a black slave whose kind master of many years has died and freed her and her sister. The problem is that the lawyer left town leaving nothing about their freedom in writing. When the man who inherited the house arrives, he doesn't believe Isabel is free and sells her and her sister to abusive owners, the Locktons. The Lockton's are Loyalists sympathetic with the British and not the American Patriots as New York becomes a hotbed at the start of the Revolutionary War. Isabel doesn't care. She has one thing on her mind. Freedom. When she seeks out the British she learns that the freedom they are fighting for is not the same as the freedom she is fighting for.

The cruel Mrs. Lockton is bent on breaking Isabel through fear and physical abuse giving Isabel a war of her own with a new master. Mrs. Lockton is hit by her husband and at the start of one chapter is a poignant epigraph about the misery of an "ill-sotted" wife. It shows that she is "chained" - so to speak - to her husband who beats her. She must hide the fact from the world for divorce was not an option back then. And like so many people who are abused, she transfers her oppression and frustration on her slaves, Isabel and Ruth, who are powerless to strike back. Isabel realizes that Mrs. Lockton's fears have shriveled her soul making her a bully like Mr. Lockton. Mrs. Lockton's reaction to Ruth's epilepsy is unsurprisingly full of superstition and fear; although I wasn't sure how much was fear of the disorder or fear of what others might think of her if Ruth had a seizure in public.

The author's made-up words and spelling of words that sound more formalized add to the setting and character voice such as "killt," "conversating," "remembery," and "brainpan." Metaphors enrich the text too. Isabel describes her anger as buzzing bees throughout the story: "The thought of Madam putting Ruth up to auction was a constant torment, like bees darting in and out of my sight, daring me to swat at them." The symbol of chains and details such as Mrs. Lockton wearing real mouse fur to accent her eyebrows are fascinating and add to an authentic setting. The simple but powerful action and imagery of the old black man called, "Grandpa," kissing her branded cheek and telling her she will find freedom by seeking her own path and crossing the "River Jordan" suggests Isabel needs to find her own path in life and a baptism of suffering lies ahead for her and others born into slavery.

The pastor chose to not help Isabel and Ruth when the uncle sells the girls. He thought about interfering but doesn't. Mrs. Seymour does not help either. She tries but the laws don't protect slaves. The woman at the inn tried to help as well but didn't have enough money to buy the girls. The author does a good job showing how laws and no human rights gave African American's no protection. Mrs. Seymour does help Isabel forgive Curzon. When she suggests that the American prisoners should be treated well by the British so that the Americans will in turn treat the British prisoners well, she is suggesting that life should be valued along with dignity. Her concept is not the norm in war, but it does show that there are some people who have the capacity to be decent. Society can desensitize and cultivate unhealthy norms that are not questioned. At least Mrs. Seymour speaks up. It is a start in the right direction.

This story revolves around human dignity. Mrs. Lockton and the societal structure of slavery tried to take away a person's dignity. By dehumanizing African Americans and making them feel worthless, the oppressors were able to rob them of their dignity. They were not valued as a human being in society. POW's and Hitler's concentration camps did the same thing. People risked their lives so they could retain that dignity and not be passive captives. Silent rebellion was a way to gain control in a powerless situation. Isabel rebelled by doing her chores slowly or risked her life by talking back to her master. She fought tenaciously for her dignity and at great cost in physical abuse. I read one Goodreads reviewer who found this unbelievable, but I think there are many examples in history of oppressed people risking their lives to hold onto their internal dignity to validate their worth in society.

Isabel's owner taught her to read which makes her educated character more plausible along with her outspoken and rebellious ways. Just read any book on Frederick Douglass. He said learning to read exposed him to new ideas and knowledge that the institution of slavery was wrong. He rose up against it and fought for freedom his whole life. Even with the powerlessness of youth and being black, Isabel, too rose up against slavery and condemned it. I expected her to side with the British who condemned slaves, but the author does a terrific job showing how neither side cared about the slaves. In the end, their lives were not valued on the same level as the British and Americans. Isabel has no loyalty to either side. Her loyalty lies only with her sole remaining family, Ruth.

Isabel recognizes that she is debased by the British and the Americans or stripped of dignity. Neither side means freedom for Isabel. She knows this, "I was chained between two nations." The British promise freedom but they don't give it. She shows how each side looks out for his or her own interests. No one sticks themselves out for Isabel and her sister, except the woman who tried to buy her in the beginning and didn't have the money. In contrast, Isabel does risks her life to save Curzon. Hers is a generous spirit inspite of all the cruelty that has been done to her physically. She holds on to dignity with actions that show everyone has value and the right to ethical treatment. She realizes this is how she and Curzon are alike. He was the one who saw her as a person in the stocks being dehumanized. She sees the same thing happening to him in prison and helps him at great risk. Freedom for him was making his own choices or choosing his own path, rather than being at the mercy of his oppressors.

Some might find the historical facts and pacing slow in sections. Some parts of the plot do not have much action as the reader learns about the conflicts between the Loyalists and Patriots. This is necessary in the development of Isabel's character arc to understanding her definition of "freedom" and how it is different from a white person's definition. Even though I understood this, I felt that when most of the piston-pumping action finally does come, the story is over. Now, I understand why I had one person come up to me and say, "You have to get 'Forge' [book 2]." So even though the ending is wrapped up it felt abrupt because it stopped at an exciting part. I'll just have to suck it up and find that next book. A terrific look at slavery and a young girl's viewpoint of the Revolutionary War.

Reading Level 5.2
4 Smileys

1 comment:

  1. I love all the books by this author. Her stories are so well researched and explain things in such a way that young readers can empathize and understand the plight of the characters while learning about history and culture. As a teacher, I would recommend her books every time - for both struggling and advanced readers. I get lost in the story myself!
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