It's a story handed down over two hundred years of generations, told in books, history classes, movies, and songs: the story of the thirteen British colonies who went rogue and changed the world forever.
We know how it all went down—the tea tax protest that literally left the British all wet, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the war that determined whether the Americans would henceforth be known as heroes or traitors. We also all know how the story ends. (Spoiler alert: we win.)
Hold your horses, though, Shmoopers, and kill the inspirational, patriotic victory music just a minute. No matter how many times you've heard this story, it's not as simple as it looks. In her 2008 historical novel, Chains, the first book in her Seeds of America series, Laurie Halse Anderson shows how the idea of freedom was a lot more complicated than we often think. The early Americans may have been fighting for liberty, but there was one pretty large group left out of their cause: the enslaved people who served their households.
But wait. If our country's founders owned slaves, does that mean they were talking the talk, but not walking the walk? Pretty much. And while there were certainly some people who faced this dilemma head-on, most didn't, which means this is definitely a sticky situation instead of just a shining bright spot in our country's history. It also means that this isn't something you hear about very much.
And that, dear Shmoopers, is where Chains comes in. This is the tale of Isabel, a thirteen-year-old girl who is enslaved by a Loyalist during the war and begins to ask some tough questions about her identity—and the American Revolution—as a result. By hanging out with Isabel as she mucks her way through this tricky, and often terrifying, terrain, Chains reveals a side of the Revolution that is frequently untold, a more complicated version of this fight than any Fourth of July fireworks display we've ever seen.
Imagine being owned by another person and owning nothing for yourself—not even your name. If this is tough to picture, it might be because in 21st century America we're fortunate to live in a culture where the dividing wall of prejudice has been mostly demolished. We elected the first African-American President, children of all races attend school together, and people are generally cool with interracial marriage.
Although racist attitudes definitely haven't been totally wiped out, equality is such a mainstay of our society at this point that we often forget that there was once a time when the thought of any of these things happening was unthinkable. And this is what makes Chains such an important story: It takes us back to a time when discrimination was a socially acceptable and even economical practice. And this time, of course, is the foundation of our country.
It's a painful and at times brutal past to confront, and it's easy to understand why we usually hear tales of glorious victory instead of the more complicated and hypocritical truth about the birth of our nation. But in order to really appreciate what we have today—and the importance of protecting these gains—it's important to dig deep into the mud of our nation's past. Otherwise, you know, history just might repeat itself.
Isabel's Historical Journey
A timeline made by a history student showing the major events in Isabel's life throughout the book.
Music, Activities, and More
Whether you're a student seeking to understand the book better or a teacher using Chains in your classroom, Anderson's website offers tons of fun activities for thinking critically about the book. Check out the playlist of songs related to the story.
Keep on Keeping On
Your journey with Isabel and Curzon doesn't have to stop now! Check out Forge and Ashes, the other two books in Laurie Halse Anderson's Seeds of America Trilogy, to learn what happens to them next.
Laurie Halse Anderson Talks About Chains
In this 2009 interview with BFK Books, Anderson talks about slavery in the 1700s, her research process, and reveals her favorite fiction writers.
Hearing Characters Speak
Laurie Halse Anderson talks with AudioFile Magazine about hearing voices—and how it's essential to her writing process.
Chains: The Music Video
Hear the story of Isabel and Ruth told in rap style as this student breaks it down in his school project.
The Author Reads Her Work
Anderson reads from Chains at the 2008 National Book Award ceremonies, where she was a finalist.
Talking About Teen Writing
In this interview with Read Write Think's podcast, Text Messages, Anderson talks about her passion for writing for teens, the themes of survival in her novels, and how she deals with writing about difficult and disturbing subject matter.
When blogger and children's book illustrator Michelle Henninger began reading Chains to her children, she was inspired to illustrate some of the key scenes in the novel. This depiction of Isabel and Ruth's first meeting with Madam Lockton, as well as other drawings, can be found on her blog.
The Fire Comes to Life
An artist's rendering of the New York Fire of 1776.
A historical map of the city of New York circa 1776, with many locations from the book marked on it.