Study Guide

Isabel in Chains

By Laurie Halse Anderson


If you think about it, Isabel is kind of an 18th-century version of Cinderella. Her parents are dead, she works for an evil lady who puts all wicked stepmothers to shame, and when she looks like she's doing her chores, she's really dreaming about the day she can be free. She doesn't get to go to the ball, though, and instead she gets locked in the potato bin. Hey, we said kind of. Though our analogy might break down pretty quickly from this point, one thing's for sure: if Isabel had a chorus of animated mice down in her basement hovel, they would totally be singing, "Isabelly, Isabelly, night and day it's Isabelly."

Loyal to the Last

More than likely, you've had to help a friend out of a jam before—rescuing them from being stranded after flat tires, buying their Starbucks drinks because they ran out of cash, bailing them out of jail, and the like. But think about this: If helping your friend could possibly cause you punishment, physical pain, or even death, would you still do it? One of Isabel's most memorable qualities is that she values her relationships so much that she will do anything to protect the people she loves, even at her own expense.

Isabel's younger sister, Ruth, is the obvious example. Because Ruth is small for her age and suffers from epilepsy, Isabel knows she won't survive on her own, and with both their parents dead, she shoulders the responsibility of caring for Ruth.

We get a clear view of Isabel's fierce devotion to Ruth upon their arrival in New York. When Ruth begins to giggle at Madam's rage over having her underclothes searched, Isabel takes the responsibility for the laughter—and a crack across the face. "I fought back the hot tears," Isabel says. "No one had ever slapped my face like that, not once in my whole life. Better me than Ruth, better me than Ruth" (5.74). Faced with pain like she's never known before, Isabel is glad it's her instead of her sister with smarting skin.

Isabel's loyalty isn't reserved just for family, though. She's quick to repay a debt of gratitude by doing good in return, even if it's for those who are very different from her. For instance, Lady Seymour shows kindness toward Isabel by taking her into her home after she nearly dies from her time in jail and branding. When Lady Seymour's house is engulfed in flames during the New York fire, Isabel is quick to rescue not only her, but also her picture of her late husband, even though it means leaving Ruth's doll behind.

Which Side Are You On?

Ever feel pressured to agree with your parents about certain issues because you worry about what they might think if you disagree? This is kind of where Isabel's at, with a lot more at stake than a simple spat with Mom and Dad.

Isabel may be loyal to her friends and family, but one of the biggest pickles she finds herself in is figuring out whether she's a Patriot or a Loyalist. On one hand, Becky tells that she shares the family's political views by default: "'Them that feeds us […] they're Loyalists, Tories. That means we're Tories, too'" (7.46). But on the other, Curzon's claims that the Patriots can help her win her freedom tempt Isabel to become a sympathizer.

Isabel spends a lot of the book waffling back and forth between the two armies. First, she gives information to Bellingham about the money in Lockton's chest. When this fails, she goes to Colonel Regan with the plot to kill Washington. In both cases, they promise to help her and Ruth sort out their situation back in New Jersey, but end up taking her information and casting her aside. Jaded by Curzon's claims, she goes to the British, who won't accept her help because Loyalists own her. Figure that one out.

In the end, Isabel's primary issue isn't which side of the independence debate she agrees with. It's whether or not she's got the guts to fight for her own freedom. Ultimately, it's reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense that convinces her to seek liberty for herself, whether it means life or death for her in the end. She questions: "If an entire nation could seek its freedom," she questions, "why not a girl?" (42.10).

Breaking the Chains

Isabel goes through a ton of stuff in this book that no thirteen-year-old should ever have to experience. She loses her father to a slave auction, her mother dies, Madam Lockton sells her sister, Ruth, and she endures physical and emotional agony from her mistress, not to mention near death. In spite of this, though, one thing is clear: She finds an inner strength through her struggles that she never knew she had.

Isabel may become legally free when she signs her name on the pass from Lockton's office, but you could also say she truly rids herself of slavery by recognizing that there is no shame in what she's experienced. As she gazes at her reflection in the office mirror, she realizes that the scar from her branding is not unlike the tribal scars her father proudly wore from an African ritual that "made him a man" (43.86). Her own mark, in turn, declares her a survivor—"It made me strong" (43.88), she notes. And strong is nothing to be ashamed of.