For a thirteen-year-old, Isabel is incredibly observant and has an amazing memory. As a result, the language of Chains is full of her assessments of the events, people, and choices in front of her as she reflects on her views of them. She learns quickly in her dealings with Madam, for example, to "[keep] careful track of her the same way as I used to mind the neighbor's bull" (8.3). This description gives us a clear look at how the book's tone mirrors Isabel's thought processes and decisions.
The same also goes for the plans Isabel makes to protect Ruth and herself. Look at how she reasons through her plan to tell Curzon about the money hidden in Madam Lockton's chest:
I could not open the gate, but I had to open the gate. This house was not a safe place. I had to get us out. But there was no way to get out […] The secret of Madam's linen chest was the only key I had. (10.24)
In this passage, the puzzle of having to enter a risky situation to gain her freedom shows the reflective and reasoning qualities of Isabel's thoughts. In short, as our narrator, Isabel has a ot on her mind, and the tone of the book follows suit.
One of the most interesting things about Chains is that it lets us see a side of the American Revolution that's often overlooked: the perspectives of slaves caught in the middle of the Loyalist/Patriot conflict. Let's face it: The hypocrisy of a slave-owning nation fighting for independence isn't exactly a bright spot in American history. Still, it's this rarely explored perspective that makes Chains fascinating.
As Becky explains to Isabel, "Them that feeds us […] they're Loyalists, Tories. That means we're Tories, too" (7.46). Back then, enslaved people were expected to hold the political views of the people who owned them, regardless of their own feelings. In spite of this, though, people still tried to use influence to sway the slaves to one side or another.
As Grandfather describes at one of Isabel's encounters at the Tea Water Pump, the British Lord Dunmore even promised freedom to any slave who would join the Loyalist cause. Isabel gives a voice to the slaves of the Revolution by demonstrating the confusing—and very high stakes—position of desiring freedom for herself, while attempting to figure out where she stands as current events unfold.
We'll start with the obvious: The title Chains refers to slavery. From there, though, it gets a little more complicated, because there's a ton of different kinds of slavery going on in this book. There's the literal enslavement of black people by the colonists, which renders Isabel an object and a possession instead of a human being and allows her to be bought, sold, and beaten against her will. There's also the figurative slavery of the Colonies to Great Britain, keeping them subordinate to the mother country in spite of a growing desire to seek their independence.
Ultimately, the title unites both of these types of chains to capture Isabel's unique experience as a slave at the time of the Revolution. After being rejected for her service by both the American and British armies, Isabel comes to one pretty hopeless conclusion:
I was chained between two nations. (29.50)
Isabel's identity as a slave renders her powerless in the face of the Revolution—she's even expected to automatically assume her master's political convictions rather than develop her own. As a result, a major conflict in Chains is Isabel's bondage between the two sides of the war. She is one stuck girl, and though the title doesn't clue us into it, as the book ends, she's finally breaking free.
Reading the end of Chains kind of feels like watching the season finale of your favorite television show—more often than not, the writers leave you with a nail-biting cliffhanger. If you're dying to know what happens next, too bad; you'll have to tune in next fall. Or, there's always the worst case scenario: The series finale ends on an ambiguous cliffhanger and you just have to live with that. Forever. (Yeah, Sopranos, we're talking to you.)
Chains is the same way. We watch Isabel forge a freedom pass, bust Curzon out of prison, row like a maniac across the river… and then everything just stops.
Why, Laurie Halse Anderson? Why in the name of all that is good in the world would you do this to us? We can't say for sure, but based on our impeccable knowledge of literary tradition, we can make a pretty good guess. Because Chains is the first in a series about Isabel and Curzon, it's possible that Anderson is harkening back to an antiquated literary style called the serial novel, a story that continues over periodic installments rather than reaching a conclusion in a single volume.
Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Mark Twain were just a few authors who popularized this format during the 1800s. It's possible that Anderson selected this format on purpose to lend even greater authenticity to her historical novel. With serials, it's all about anticipation—and after that ending, we can bet you're highly anticipating heading to your local bookstore or library to get the next book.
Today, it's the theater capital of the world, home of the world's biggest New Year's Eve party, and notorious for its bright lights and bad traffic. In fact, as you read Chains, it's probably a little disorienting to see famous places like Brooklyn, Broadway, and the Battery without the hustle and bustle associated with them in the present. New York may not have been the tourist mecca that we know during Isabel's time, but for the Revolution, it was something more important: the most strategic location in all of the Colonies.
Let's use a modern-day analogy to show how it worked. A lot of television coverage of Presidential elections focus on which candidates are currently leading in which states and what they are doing to gain ground among their people. During these campaigns, candidates develop clear strategies that will best help them gain momentum in these crucial battleground states. That's why you often see opposing candidates making multiple appearances there, often at the same time in different cities.
New York in the Revolution was the same way. Curzon puts it like this:
"New York is a ball tossed between the Loyalists and the Patriots. Right now, the Patriots hold it." (6.44)
The Loyalists attempted to change this by shifting their headquarters to New York in hopes of gaining ground. While the New York population of Loyalists was relatively large, many people were still pretty fickle about their position. As one of Lockton's Loyalist cronies later states, turning the tide of approval in New York to the British would pretty much wreck the rebel cause; he says:
"A Loyal New York cuts off New English from the rest of the colonies. The rebellion will wither like a vine cut off at the roots." (14.39)
We know you're probably wondering why this history lesson is so important. Here it is: by choosing to set Chains in New York, the crucial, undecided territory of the war, Anderson makes a statement about Isabel's own role in the conflict.
Like New York itself, Isabel is a ball tossed between the two sides—not primarily because of her opinions on the war, but because she doesn't know which side will help her and Ruth the most. She first spies for Bellingham, then attempts to join the British, then begins carrying messages for the American prisoners of war. The choice of New York as a setting, therefore, both carries a metaphorical role and helps to develop Isabel's character.
Isabel's immediate surroundings as a slave to the Locktons also carry evidence of this political divide. A good example of this is the Tea Water Pump, the water-gathering place where the rich send their slaves for water "because it tastes the best" (6.15). Remember, there was no water purification or distillation or Evian bottles back then, so the place where you got your water was largely determined by social class—and the cleanest sources were reserved for people with money.
The Tea Water Pump isn't just an illustration of the division between rich and poor, though. Because it's where all the slaves of the rich go to get water, it's also a sort of gathering place for the slaves to hear news from the war and discuss recent developments. We see this later in the book when Grandfather and some of the other slaves argue about whether the British will make good on their promise to free slaves who join their war effort.
More importantly, though, the Tea Water Pump is strategically positioned in a pretty politically charged area. As Isabel explains:
The pump was set in a little shed at the edge of the Common, a big gathering place ringed by army barracks, the poorhouse, and the jail. (13.27)
This location eventually becomes crucial to Isabel's plan to save Curzon's life when the British take his unit prisoner—she uses her daily chore of getting water as an excuse to deliver messages and visit her friend. The significance of the Common isn't lost on Madam either; at one point, she even instructs Sarah not to let Isabel go to "that blasted water pump" (39.24). Both the city of New York itself and the places Isabel frequents both establish the importance of politics and social class in the world of Chains.
Since Chains is the first book in a continuing series, it's difficult to tell what distance Isabel, as our narrator, is telling the story from. We do know from the use of past tense in the narration, though, that she's speaking of events that have already taken place. The comfort in this is that we assume she survives the whole ordeal since, you know, she's the one telling it to us (unless she died and became a zombie, but we don't think it's that kind of book). Importantly, this also means that reading Chains feels like reading an actual account of a slave's life during the war.
Looking back on her initial journey to Curzon as a spy, Isabel says:
I thought it would be easy. I would run straight to the shed behind Bellingham's house, tap on Curzon's window, tell him the news, and hurry home. (10.27)
Obviously, she eventually found out that taking a major anti-Loyalist bombshell to one of the most powerful officials in the city wasn't a walk in the park. A more heartbreaking example of Isabel's retrospection occurs the night Madam orders Becky to give her cookies and the sweetmilk drink. Not knowing that Madam plans to sell Ruth that night, Isabel says that she "shall never forgive [herself]" for not seeing through Madam's kindness. Tear.
Because being a kid typically involves acts of daring-do and danger (think trampolines, wheelies on your bike, touch football, antics on the monkey bars), pretty much all of us have scars, and those scars all have stories. Imagine, though, having a large scar in a prominent place, such as your cheek, one that everyone noticed the minute they looked at you, one that symbolized a moment of public humiliation and shame. This is how Isabel feels about the letter I for insolence that Madam Lockton orders branded on her face.
Branding is usually a practice reserved for farmers who want to inscribe their cattle with their initials so they can be brought back if they run away. In this sense, Isabel's mark illustrates the brutality of slavery, and the rendering of human beings as objects. The judge at Isabel's trial even asks Madam if she'd like her husband's initials to be used. Madam thinks the I will be more shameful, though, as it will "alert people to her tendencies and serve as a reminder of her weakness" (22.36). In this regard, the scar also represents the calculated cruelty of Madam.
Unwittingly, however, Madam ends up doing Isabel a huge favor through this decision: she unknowingly gives Isabel back her identity.
The second half of Chains, which begins when Isabel returns to the Locktons' after recovering at Lady Seymour's, primarily focuses on her struggle to tow the line with Madam Lockton while still asking serious questions about freedom and her future. When she finally decides to escape and goes to Lockton's office to steal the pass that will set her free, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
As she studies the mark, she recalls that her father had three lines carved into his face as part of a tribal ritual. "He was proud of his marks," she says. "In the country of his ancestors, they made him a man" (43.86). Looks like somebody just found a connection to her past—and a connection based on pride instead of shame at that.
In this moment, looking at her own mark that was meant to symbolize shame, Isabel finds empowerment instead. "This is my country mark," she realizes. "I did not ask for it, but I would carry it as Poppa carried his. It made me his daughter. It made me strong […] This mark stands for Isabel" (43.88, 90). Instead of insolence, the I comes to represent Isabel and her reclaiming of her personhood.
Madam Lockton may have tried to break Isabel by sending away her sister, physically abusing her, and even renaming her. Ironically, though, the scar also represents Madam's failure to control Isabel. She may own Isabel's body, but as Isabel herself observes, "She cannot chain my soul" (38.33). And so long as that's true, Isabel will always be at least a little bit free.
When Isabel and Ruth leave Mary Finch's home, Robert instructs them to bring nothing along except their shoes and blankets. This means Ruth must leave behind the only possession that's truly hers: a doll "made of flannel bits and calico" (3.1). That's a long way from a Barbie or an American Girl doll, but for a slave, a doll of any kind would be a luxury.
When they arrive at the Locktons', Isabel makes a new doll out of cornhusks and scraps of fabric to replace the old one. In this respect, the doll is a symbol of Isabel's kindness and faithfulness to her sister. She makes Ruth something not only be played with so she can be a child even in the midst of slavery, but also to comfort her and remind her of their old life.
When Madam Lockton sends Ruth away to her estate in Charleston, though, the doll takes on new meaning. In Ruth's absence, it becomes Isabel's comfort object to remind her of her sister, as well as provide the hope that she will someday see Ruth again. To Isabel, not keeping Ruth's doll is like giving up that hope, so when she makes her ill-fated decision to leave to join the British, she hides it inside a rag in a corner of her basket, saying that it's "the one thing I could not leave behind" (28.36). Insofar as it represents her sister, the doll is Isabel's purpose.
As important a reminder as the doll is, though, it eventually becomes a symbol of the sacrifice Isabel is willing to make for others. When fire strikes the city of New York, Isabel willingly drops the doll so she can more easily rescue the helpless Lady Seymour from her burning home. Isabel's a deeply sentimental person, but she's still willing to sacrifice memories of the past for herself and others to stay alive. Nonetheless, it's a painful sacrifice for her to make. "All I lost in the confusion was Ruth's doll," she says. "All I lost was everything" (32.6). Pardon us while we grab a tissue.
We've all got personal possessions or clothing that define us for our friends and family. Maybe it's your letter jacket from school, the notebook you're always writing poems and story ideas in, or your favorite, worn out baseball cap. Evidently, even with the passage of over two hundred years, some things never change. No matter how well they know him, everyone recognizes Curzon as "the boy in the red hat" (5.33).
As a slave, it would be really easy for Curzon to get depressed or irritated with his circumstances. Even if Bellingham seems to treat him well, knowing that another person owns you and that you have virtually no rights has to be pretty demoralizing.
Still, we never once see Curzon complain. In fact, he seems content and high-spirited as he helps his master by delivering details about the British cause—even when he agrees to join the rebel army in Bellingham's place. Insofar as the red hat represents Curzon, then, it also stands for his hope, spirit, and individualism.
What's really interesting about this hat is that it changes in appearance according to Curzon's experiences. When he declares himself an American soldier, Isabel notices that it's "flecked with mud" (26.27), as though foreshadowing his coming trials as the sole slave in his unit. When she sees the British march him into the prison, it's "nearer brown than red, with a rip through the brim" (33.27)—intact, but worse for the wear.
And finally, when Isabel visits Curzon in prison later in the book and finds that Dibdin has been depriving him of blankets and food, he doesn't even have the hat. Its texture, condition, and color all gradually fade, just as Curzon's own hope for freedom and even survival begin to lose their luster. Isabel's his only hope now.
When Isabel and Ruth leave the Finch home, Isabel defies Robert's orders to leave everything behind and takes a handful of seeds that Momma kept in a jar. She later plants some of them outside her quarters at the Locktons'. "I did not know what they would grow into," she explains, "but planting them deep in the cool earth was a comfort" (13.49). Think about how much this parallels the new life she and Ruth have been forced into—Isabel has no idea what this life will grow into, either.
The next time we encounter the mystery seeds, they've begun to sprout. Isabel tells us their stalks are "two inches tall but gave no clue about their identity" (17.4). "Identity" is a funny word for Isabel to use here—after all, isn't that a major part of her struggle throughout the story? She certainly asks a lot of questions about who and what she is—slave or free, Loyalist or Patriot, property or person.
So in a way, Isabel herself is a lot like those plants. They're beginning to grow, to feel their way into the world and see where they fit, but there's still no evidence to tell what kinds of plants they really are. Just like our main girl.
Aside from being a symbol of Isabel's journey toward making her own life, the seeds also represent her faithfulness to her family. By taking Momma's seeds and planting them, Isabel demonstrates her desire to care for Ruth in the absence of her parents and raise her up in a way that would be pleasing to them.
When Ruth is sold, though, Isabel experiences guilt and grief for failing their parents, saying that she'll "never forgive [herself]" (20.41) for falling asleep that night. She experiences this same remorse later that winter, when she discovers the plants grown from the seeds are dead from the cold: "A lump of mud stuck in my throat. I had forgotten to care for them" (33.9). Just as she's filled with regret and shame for letting Ruth be taken—for Ruth's growth and care eluding her grasp—so, too, Isabel feels angry at herself for letting Momma's plants die.
The plants might be dead, but we don't think Isabel—or Ruth, for that matter—is done growing yet.
If you were cognizant of news events in 2003 (or have just seen your fair share of old news footage), you probably recognized that the scene where a group of rebels tear down the statue of King George on Broadway looks an awful lot like the Iraqi citizens tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein after American troops invaded. That's because the passage of two centuries doesn't dampen the desire for independence from cruel and unjust rulers—nor the rash behavior that often comes with it.
The huge, ornate statue of King George riding a horse is clearly a symbol of the authority the King wields over the Colonies. This significance isn't lost on Isabel—as she observes:
The horse and the man were fashioned larger than could be possible, but I guess that was the way of kings. They were both made of gold that sometimes glittered in the sunlight, but dulled when the clouds interfered. (20.7)
Isabel really nails with this observation: The King demands respect and control, until "clouds" of rebellion move across his path.
When the statue finally gets toppled, though, the rebels show Isabel that all that glitters isn't gold—literally. As they begin to chop up the statue with an axe, Isabel marvels at how easily the thing comes apart and wonders how it's possible for gold to get broken up that easily. It's only when a soldier holds up the statue's head that she sees the truth: "The King was not made of gold, but of soft lead, covered with gilt paint" (20.13). Georgie might look like a golden boy, but he's actually nothing but a cheap substitute. Oops.
Similarly, he might make a lot of noise over the rebellion against him, but in reality, he's just a regular dude in a regular position of power that can be overthrown by regular people. Which, you know, is exactly what happens.
It's hard to imagine a character other than Isabel as Chains' narrator. After all, it's her story, her journey through loss, heartache, and agony to discover the strength she didn't know she had.
Part of the need for Isabel as a first-person narrator comes from the way her voice aids in developing her character. She's funny to the point of being sassy at times, like when she describes Madam wearing her mouse fur eyebrows to her party by saying, "In truth, she looked like a woman with two lumps of mouse fur stuck on her face" (34.9). Some of her word choices are also quirky—she calls her mind a "brainpan" (34.63), for instance. We like that one.
With Isabel as narrator, we also get to experience her emotional response to the story's events firsthand. This is particularly true of the events following Madam's decision to sell Ruth. As readers, we join Isabel in the disjointed six days that follow her being thrown in jail. "My thoughts would not line up like good soldiers," she says. "They swarmed afield and fled, chasing the blood that dripped from my head" (22.6). Through descriptions like this, we feel the same confusion and panic that Isabel does.
We don't usually do this, but we think it's interesting—and important—to consider in this case. Is it problematic that the author is white and the story is told in the voice and from the perspective of an enslaved black person? Why or why not?
It's no accident that Chains begins with the game-changing event of Mary Finch's death. Ruth and Isabel's mother has told them that the day their mistress dies is the day they'll be free, as stated in her will. It's not quite that simple, though, since Mary's brother, Robert, is clearly prejudiced against the girls and her lawyer's nowhere to be found, so the promised freedom remains out of reach. We're therefore introduced to the main problem Isabel faces: her desire to be free and society's resistance to her dreams.
Drama continues to build as Isabel and Ruth are sold to the Locktons, a merchant and his strict, controlling wife in New York City. While Isabel witnesses the daily growth of the rebels' discontent throughout the building of the Revolution, the Locktons are Loyalists, and she is expected to support the British as well. Basically, she's confused about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this whole thing. When Curzon tells her that his American owner might be able to sort out the situation with her and Ruth, Isabel begins spying for the rebels.
Isabel's story reaches the point of maximum intensity when Madam Lockton discovers that she's been taking food to American prisoners of war. She also ups the emotional stakes by revealing that Ruth is alive and well and being housed at the Lockton headquarters in Charleston. Rather than hand over the note she's delivering to an American commander, though, Isabel throws it into the fire, unleashing Madam's wrath.
Isabel makes the decision once and for all to stop waiting for freedom to come to her and claim it for herself. She steals a pass from Lockton and fills it out, declaring herself a freed slave, and then she busts out of the house. Realizing the strength of her friendship with Curzon for the first time, she goes to the prison and gets him out by pretending he's dead from a fever. The two of them steal a boat and row across the river to New Jersey.
Because Chains is the first installment in a series, there's not as much resolution to the story as you might expect from a novel. Still, Isabel has accomplished her goal: She's rid herself of the Locktons, is a free slave, and has made it across the river to New Jersey. She has, in her words, "'crossed the river Jordan '" (45.44), overcoming the obstacles in her path to gain liberty from her chains.