Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Cover 1: The UK Paperback copy
I chose to read Chains because I saw in the library that it had been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the synopsis looked really interesting. Here it is:
'Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves. Sold from one owner to the next, they arrive in New York as the Americans are fighting for their independence, and the English are struggling to maintain control. Soon Isabel is struggling too. Struggling to keep herself and her sister safe in a world in which they have no control. With a rare and compelling voice, this haunting novel tells not only the story of a remarkable girl and her incredible strength but also of a time and place in which slavery was the order of the day, and lives were valued like weights of meat, or bundles of vegetables.'

My review and thoughts:

The book opens in Spring 1776 at the scene of the funeral of Miss Mary Finch, the elderly owner of Isabel, a young teenage slave girl, her little sister Ruth and also of their mother, who had died of smallpox not long ago. Despite protests that herself and Ruth were freed in Miss Finch's will, her abrupt and unkindly nephew Robert refuses to acknowledge the existence of the will and wants to get rid of the girls as fast as he can to the high test bidder. Soon Isabel and Ruth find themselves sold to the cruel and wealthy Lockton family ,who are English loyalists, and shipped away to New York with the sea separating Rhode Island where they Mum is buried and the only place that they could get near to calling a home. With only each other left, Isabel vows to take care of Ruth, who is a simple but obedient and hard working girl Mrs Lockton, whom Isabel refers to as Madam in the book, treats Isabel very badly, making her work hard from dawn to dusk at her every whim and feeding her very little. Although it may seem that 'Madam' is trying to break Isabel's spirits she is determined to cling onto hope.

Cover 2
Soon after her arrival at the Lockton house, she becomes friends with a young slave boy called Curzon who opens her eyes to what is happening in the American fight for independence war and how the Patriots or 'rebels' as they were called were trying to gain freedom from the British that occupied New York. Owned by a Patriot leader, Curzon knows of the suspicion that has fallen on Mr Lockton and how Isabel could obtain valuable information from Mr Lockton as black slaves are thought of as invisible.
This short extract, which served as an alternative  'blurb' on the back of the book sums up Isabel's feelings about it:

'You want me to be a spy?" I asked. "Are you funny in the head? Do you know what they would do to me?"

Although confused at what she should do, Isabel eventually agrees to help as she believes it may help to gain her freedom, at great risk of dire consequences if she is found out by one of the Locktons.

After this, Isabel is on a dangerous journey and there are many questions that cannot be answered and she wonders whether she often wonders if she is doing the right thing or what side of the war she should trust. However, throughout all the many troubles that she has to face, her strength of spirit carries her through.

Chains was a book that was incredibly detailed and did not gloss over any part of the plot quickly but was very pacy and I couldn't stop reading even if though I didn't want it to end.
For me, the history  of the American Revolutionary War was fresh and new, making it all the more interesting. I especially liked the way that the issue of slavery and the war were combined together as I have read books about slavery on plantations but found this book had more dimension and room for a dynamic plot, which Chains definitely has.

The many themes that cropped up in the book made me stop and think about the, such as racial tension and the invisibility of slaves and the horrors of the way that they were treated.
Cover 3
It also made you think about who were the 'good' and 'bad' side in the war and if there really was one as I know that many Americans grow up thinking that the British were the 'bad' side. However, the book makes you ask the questions: How would you feel if you were a slave and the British offered you freedom? Would you trust them even though the Patriots are the ones fighting for liberty, freedom and Independence? 

Lovely bonuses:

Laurie Halse Anderson includes a wonderful appendix with questions and answers that include these historical topics amongst others. I found it very helpful, particularly with distinguishing fact from fiction in the book as many of the things that Isabel experiences could have actually happened at the time to a young slave girl.

At the top of each chapter were little extracts from sources like newspapers, letters or books written at the time, which I loved because they made the book more quirky and their content and the dated font helped to set the historical scene each time I opened the book to read more.
 The chapters were just the right size, reasonably short but packing in enough emotion, excitement, plot twists and description to satisfy. I found that they were great when trying to get myself to put the book down to go to sleep!

Chains is the first book I have read by Laurie Halse Anderson and I loved it! Her writing style was very engaging as it was written from the point of view of Isabel, which meant that the emotion of her life as a slave really shined through the writing throughout the book. I also liked the way that at the end of chapters/paragraphs there was often a sentence in italics written as though Isabel is talking to herself.

I really recommend it to everyone- you will fall in love with the engaging and page turning story of Isabel's story of courage and strength when she is surrounded by betrayal and cruelty in her life.

Extra: I am looking forward to reading the upcoming sequel to Chains, called Forge, when it is released.


Take a look at the three cover editions above- Which one do YOU like best?

I think that all of them portray the book in a different way:

Cover 2  shows the concept of Isabel being 'chained' to her life as a slave really well and I love the idea of the 2 birds- 1 American and 1 British- however, the colours are quite dull and although it is a cover which speaks out with a powerful message, it is not the most appealing of covers

Cover 3 is very bright and I like the contrast of the red background and the yellow writing.  The idea of Isabel being enclosed in a circle of chains with the pretty decoration around the side is also lovely.

Cover 1 is a cover that uses a photograph, which I think is very effective because the expression on the girl's face makes you want to pick it up to find out what she is thinking/feeling and what has made that happen. The decorative flowers at the edge are a cute edition, as is the quote at the top of the book, which really drew me in (as this was the edition I first saw in the library.

Although I like all of the covers for different reasons the one that appeals to me the most has to be Cover 1 but that is a very hard decision.

What do you think of the covers and which is your favourite?


  1. I like #1 better than the American cover, which is more abstract. I think it would draw the attention of teen readers better than the American one. I don't care for #3--looks very old fashioned to me and doesn't seem to suit the book. I thought this was an excellent book--most of the books on slavery seem to take place around the Civil War and also in the South. This was a good reminder that there were slaves in the North as well, something that seems to get skipped over in school.

  2. @fourth Musketeer

    Thanks for your opinions :) Yes, I definitely agree that #1 would appeal to teens more as it definitely did to me and I think that I had seen cover #3 before and not picked it up but #1 interested me.

    I haven't got taught about what the book is based around in school (maybe because I live in the UK???), only investigating the slave trade briefly so I learnt lots of new facts from the book.

  3. I really should read this book! I have it sitting on my shelf... The review is really epic!


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