[Mr. Robert] had showed up a few weeks earlier to visit Miss Mary Finch, his aunt and only living relation. He looked around her tidy farm, listened to her ragged, wet cough, and moved in. Miss Mary wasn't even cold on her deathbed when he helped himself to the coins in her strongbox. (1.8)
One way Anderson sets up the importance of family in Chains is by showing the dysfunction in the families of Isabel's oppressors. Here, Mr. Robert is virtually unconcerned with his only relative's death, only coming to her aid because he knows a bunch of money is coming his way. Way to keep it classy, Robert Finch.
One by one they dragged us forward, and a man shouted out prices to the crowd of likely buyers and baby Ruth cried, and Momma shook like the last leaf on a tree, and Poppa… and Poppa, he didn't want them to bust up our family like we were sheep or hogs. (2.41)
Rather than stay silent as he's expected to, Poppa fights for his family when he learns he's being sold to a different household than his wife and daughter. Rebelling against his new master is a way of asserting his humanity as a father, even if it means facing a severe beating.
We couldn't take Momma's shells, nor Ruth's baby doll made of flannel bits and calico, nor the wooden bowl Poppa made for me. Nothing belonged to us. (3.1)
Whoa. In a society like ours that's pretty materialistic, the idea of slaves not being able to take any possessions with them seems unimaginable. What makes this especially sad is that despite the trauma of losing both of their parents, Isabel and Ruth can't take anything to remember them by. Like the act of splitting up families, slavery holds no room for compassion.
They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That's where Momma was now, wailing at the water's edge, while he girls were pulled out of sight, under white sails that cracked in the wind. (4.9)
Remember, Isabel is only thirteen. Could you have survived on your own in a strange place at her age? Isabel deals with the certain fear this brings by imagining her mother sharing in her grief over what's happening to her children.
[Curzon] set his package on a stump. "The little one is your sister? That's why you took the blow meant for her, isn't it?" (6.25)
With Momma and Poppa gone, Isabel has become, in effect, the leader of her family. She knows that a big part of this means protecting her weaker, younger sister at all costs—even if it means taking her place and being punished on her behalf. She's clearly influenced by her father in this regard, taking Ruth's beating the same way Poppa took the beating after being sold as a defense of his family.
I didn't wait for an answer, but started in on an island lullaby that Momma had loved. Ruth lay quiet, her breath steady and slow. By the time the song was over, she was fast asleep. (10.15)
While Isabel often shows evidence of her father's courage, she's also inherited her mother's quiet strength and nurturing spirit. In spite of Momma's absence, Isabel keeps her alive for Ruth by singing her favorite island song.
My momma and poppa appeared from the shadows. They flew to me and wrapped their arms around me and cooled my face with their ghost tears. (23.20)
Isabel's branding at the order of Madam Lockton is one of the most horrifying moments she experiences. Like her initial voyage to New York, Isabel deals with traumatic situations by summoning the spirits of her parents into her mind and imagining their comfort.
Christmas at home had meant eating Momma's bread pudding with maple syrup and nutmeg, and reading the Gospel of Matthew out loud whilst Ruth played in Momma's lap. I was miles away from celebrating like that. (38.5)
There's a reason why Christmas is often a tough time of year for many people—it's loaded with nostalgia, which can become especially potent for those who have lost loved ones. Isabel gives us a picture here of the loving, spiritual Christmases her family celebrated even in the midst of slavery, including such vivid detail that we can feel her sadness and longing for better times.
I heard Madam ask the doctor plain when the old lady would die. The doctor could not answer her. (41.21)
Seriously? Who says stuff like that? Like Robert Finch's conduct when his sister passes away, the Locktons are pretty much just waiting for Lady Seymour to die so they can get her money; they don't like her and see her as a burden. The thing that makes this truly sick, though, is that Madam advertises her desire for Lady Seymour's demise. The Locktons provide another example of a dysfunctional family that remains together while Isabel's loving home is blown apart.
The roar came again. I cocked my head and listened. It did not come from the street nor the house above. It was not cannon fire. 'Twas inside me. A thought, thunderous loud.
Ruth was alive.
Alive in Charleston. In South Carolina, not on a ship, not on an island.
Alive in a town I can walk to. (43.57-60)
After she's branded, Isabel pretty much gives up on life and starts going through the motions. For a while, her deal with Dibdin to deliver messages in exchange for Curzon's protection in jail is about the only thing that keeps her driven. Madam may have meant to discourage Isabel by telling her that she still owned Ruth, but love for her sister fuels Isabel back into action and inspires her plan of escape.
Half my roll disappeared in one bite. It was the first decent food I'd had since Jenny's kitchen. Curzon watched me without saying a word. When I licked the butter off my fingers, he gave me his roll.
"I et a large breakfast," he said. (6.21-22)
Curzon, we'd like to believe you… but it's pretty obvious what you're doing here. Regardless of whether the bookseller gets rolls in bulk from his girlfriend's dad, fresh, hot bread was still probably a huge delicacy for enslaved people. Curzon gives up his chance of experiencing gooey, buttery goodness so Isabel can have something substantial to eat. Now that's a friend.
Before I could protest, Curzon tossed his ridiculous hat at me and lifted Ruth up to a perch on his left shoulder. She squealed with delight and a little fear and hung on to his neck so tightly he looked to choke. (18.26)
There's something about the kindness Curzon shows to Ruth in this scene that makes him super cute, if you ask us. By establishing a bond with her sister, Curzon shows Isabel that his friendship with her is more than just a passing fancy. Ruth is the most important thing in her life, and he's demonstrating that he accepts both of them, not just her.
"Your friend with the red hat came to the door with the news that you were near-dead in the stocks." (24.26)
If Curzon hadn't seen Isabel in the stocks after her branding and had the courage to go to Lady Seymour and tell her, Isabel would probably have died and Chains would end right there, and on a pretty depressing note at that. Fortunately, Curzon is a loyal friend who's willing to do what it takes to save Isabel.
[Curzon] released me and I released him. "I'm sorry for your sister and your face and your broken head." He wiggled his thumb. "A thousand times as sorry as the hills." (25.54)
It's possible that when Curzon told Isabel that spying for the Patriots could buy her freedom, he didn't really know that the officials would take the information and run. Maybe it's wrong for Isabel to put all the blame for what's happened to her on him, but Curzon obviously recognizes that there's a chance he led his friend down the wrong path and is sorry for it.
[Curzon] would not look at me. Didn't say a word, neither. He simply carried the buckets to the Locktons' gates for me, then walked away. (26.56)
At the end of their encounter after she returns to the Locktons from Lady Seymour's house, Isabel tells Curzon she never wants to see him again… but that doesn't stop him from being kind to her. Seriously—have you thought about how heavy those water buckets would be, especially after carrying them for a mile? Curzon really is a super nice guy and a great friend.
After that it fell to me to walk with Lady Seymour along Wall Street on days when the sun was strong. She hired three seamstresses to sew her a new wardrobe and included a heavy skirt and thick woolen cloak for me in the order. I protested that I could not pay for the clothes, but Lady Seymour simply pointed to the portrait of the yellow haired man. (33.13)
Isabel's daring rescue of Lady Seymour during the fire is a true test of her feelings toward the old woman—she not only carries her out of the house, but leaves Ruth's doll behind so she can bring the portrait of Lady Seymour's husband along instead. In return, Lady Seymour shows her gratitude in an act of friendship: providing Isabel with the luxury of new clothes.
He freed me from the stocks. He is my friend. My only friend. (35.15)
Taking food to Curzon in the prison may be fraught with danger, but that doesn't concern Isabel. Curzon is not only her best friend, but proved himself by saving her life. Curzon could have just let her die, but he didn't; Isabel recognizes that she owes him the same act of loyalty.
[Lady Seymour] sipped again and looked at me over the rim of her teacup. "It is honorable to help a friend in need." (36.25)
Isn't Lady Seymour awesome? She's such a breath of fresh air after Madam Lockton's selfishness and general unreasonableness. Still, we can't help but wonder if she's thinking of her friendship with Isabel when she says this. In a way, she's telling Isabel that she is "honorable" for the sacrifice she made in rescuing Lady Seymour from the fire.
I could not eat or drink a thing for my belly was tied up with fear. My thoughts chased round and round my brainpan. I could not visit the prison daily. I was sure to be caught and punished. But I had to visit the prison daily. Curzon's life depended on it. (37.80)
Enslaved people in Isabel's time basically lived in fear of beatings, separation from loved ones, and even death. None of this, however, matters to Isabel in comparison to keeping her friend alive. Her willingness to sacrifice her life for Curzon demonstrates the strength of their relationship.
My remembery called up the feel of being locked in the stocks, of my face being burnt, of him watching me from across the courtyard; him watching out for me. 'Twas Curzon who made sure I survived. 'Twas he who had been my steadfast friend since the day they brought me here. (44.32)
Isabel's decision to bust Curzon out of prison is the ultimate proof of the lessons she's learned about loyalty and friendship. The ways she and Curzon have helped each other and even saved each other prove that her escape from New York has to be a joint effort between them. She can't just abandon him, even if it means putting her own freedom at risk.
I curtsied, bewildered at the speed of it all. Yesterday I had been aboard a ship. The day before that, sold in a tavern. The day before that, I woke up in my own bed and watched an old woman die. My belly ached again, as if I were still at sea and the waves were throwing me off balance. (5.95)
Dude. Even on our busiest days, we typically at least stay in the same location. Having your whole world turned upside down in the space of forty-eight hours would do a ton of damage to your identity. It's no wonder Isabel spends a lot of the book's opening traumatized and disoriented.
Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step. (6.35)
Becky's instruction that slaves are to follow their masters' political beliefs regardless of their own opinions leaves Isabel feeling a little ill. She may be new to the conflict between Loyalists and Patriots, but she clearly understands that there's something disturbing about letting another person dictate your beliefs rather than being allowed to develop your own.
I was lost. I knew that we were in the cellar of a house on Wall Street, owned by the Locktons, in the city of New York, but it was like looking at a knot, knowing it was a knot, but not knowing how to untie it. I had no map for this life. (8.7)
According to the rules of slavery, being sold to the Locktons pretty much erases every sense of identity Isabel's ever had. She doesn't know where she fits in this new world and is overwhelmed not just by the prospect of a new owner, but being in a huge city inflamed by war. Sounds like a pretty impossible knot to us.
The older woman sipped her tea. "What is your name, girl?" she asked me.
"Isabel, ma'am," I said. "Isabel Finch."
"Ridiculous name," Madam said […] "You are called Sal Lockton now." (9.21)
Wait… Did Madam just change Isabel's name? She sure did, and Isabel basically just has to stand there and take it, or else face the consequences. Our names are so tied up with who we are that to be told she no longer is Isabel has to be disorienting, especially when combined with everything she's experienced so far.
Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at my face, my kerchief, my shift neatly tucked into my shirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel. (21.49)
The sale of Ruth is the first time that Isabel begins to see herself as a human independent of the slavery system. By acknowledging that Isabel is the core of who she is, not Sal Lockton, she begins to reject the authority that the system has over her. It's a huge turning point on her journey toward freeing herself from the control of other people.
Madam shot a sideways glance at me. "I prefer the girl branded with the letter I for 'Insolence.' It will alert people to her tendencies and serve as a reminder of her weakness." (22.36)
When Madam gets up in court and orders the branding as Isabel's punishment, she's basically telling everyone in attendance—right in front of Isabel—that Isabel is a bad girl. The branding, in a sense, makes this true, permanently inscribing her "tendencies" on her face. It not only mars Isabel's skin, but her sense of self as well.
"A scar is a sign of strength," [Grandfather] said. "The sign of a survivor." (26.51)
After weeks of being beaten down by the likes of Madam Lockton, what Isabel really needs is someone to tell her she's okay, and that's exactly what Grandfather does. While she has a long way to go before she really puts the pieces together, his statement is the beginning of her lesson that the scar doesn't have to be a mark of shame.
I took the slim book off the shelf and opened the cover. I had never read a poem. What if I lacked the skill? What if I were caught? (36.38)
Earlier in the book, Mr. Robert accused Isabel of lying about knowing how to read. Evidently, Isabel has been so broken by recent events that she fails to see the great power in her literary skills. At this point, though, the idea of using her ability to read—even to read a poem—actually frightens her.
My eyes would not close. My thoughts churned up like muddy water, with dangerous eels thrashing through it.
If an entire nation could see its freedom, why not a girl? (42.10-11)
Yay. Eventually, reading Common Sense inspires Isabel to see the whole picture: that she is an individual with rights, who does not deserve to be owned by another human being. This is the beginning of her plan to escape the Locktons' slavery and set out on her own journey.
I took a step back, seeing near my whole self in the mirror. I pushed back my shoulders and raised my chin, my back straight as an arrow.
This mark stands for Isabel. (44.89-90)
Madam Lockton may have intended the I for insolence to be a mark of shame, but Isabel's newfound empowerment through Thomas Paine's writing inspires her to see things differently. Whether Madam is aware of it or not, what she intended as a painful punishment is actually a proclamation of Isabel's identity. She is not a slave named Sal, but a man's daughter named Isabel, who proudly can wear her mark just as her father did.
At the end of the block there were soldiers on watch in front of City Hall; a dozen or so men standing around a campfire, with more dozing on the ground […] Their guns were close to hand. I crept as close as I dared, but there was no way to sneak past them. (10.29)
Isabel may just be trying to get to Bellingham's house to deliver word of Lockton's Loyalist antics, but her encounter with the city's Patriot occupation gives her a first taste of how inescapable the conflict is. Her goal of seeking freedom for her and Ruth is all tied up with the colonies' own struggle for independence, making the situation considerably more complicated.
"This is an outrage," Lockton fumed.
"No, Elihu," Bellingham said. "This is war. Even our churches are making the sacrifice, delivering their bells to be recast as cannon. Surely you do not rate your home above the houses of God?" (11.33)
Sacrifice is a key theme of any war story, but here, Bellingham is more interested in manipulating Master Lockton than getting the pulls from his windows. He needs an excuse to get inside his house and get to Madam's notorious linen chest. For officials like Bellingham, who attempt to uncover proof of citizens' Loyalist leanings, war is fought psychologically as much as physically.
The men made short work of King George. When the statue was reduced into pieces that could be easily carted off, they did just that. The plan was to melt down all the lead into bullets.
"We'll fire Majesty at the redcoats!" joked a man with a booming voice. (20.14-15)
The celebratory mood of Patriot citizens as they destroy the statue of King George following the announcement of independence gives us (and Isabel) a look at the zeal that often comes with war. While Isabel doesn't totally grasp the reasoning behind their actions, she does understand the determination of the rebels and senses the danger that could come to those who support the King.
Becky asked around for days, but there were no spare carpenters to be found, no matter how much coin was offered. The men were all getting ready for war. The British had set up a new camp in Brooklyn on Long Island, and Washington was moving his troops around like pieces on a checkerboard. (26.5)
What's really fascinating about Isabel is that even though she doesn't really understand the reasons for the war, she still has impeccable knowledge of battle strategy. Her checkers analogy reflects both her relatively innocent mindset as well as her understanding of the inner workings of the war.
"What say you?" Grandfather said.
"I say I'm an American," Curzon said. "An American soldier." (26.26)
Curzon may say that he's fighting in the war to win his freedom from Bellingham, but it's pretty obvious that his reasons for accepting the deal from his master go beyond that. Throughout the story, Curzon's knowledge of the war proves that he really is a Patriot—not just because Bellingham is, but because he genuinely supports the cause of liberty. Although slaves aren't supposed to have political leanings, Curzon is clearly passionate about fighting for (some) independence.
"Washington had them melt down the church bells and make them into cannons. That will surely displease the Lord, I say. If God switches sides and allows the British to take New York, you'll see me headed for Jersey." (37.16)
The idea of God taking sides in a war isn't exactly a new concept—we've heard it before and continue to hear it today. Some call it superstitious thinking, others call it arrogance. Still, the fact that countries often enlist the support of a higher deity in their cause says something about the great unknown of war. While it's impossible to know the big guy in the sky's thoughts on matters of war, it's one way to cope with the frightening risks of battle.
The rebels kept coming in, row after filthy row, most with their heads down, some limping with a crutch or an arm in a sling. Their uniforms were torn and tattered. A few walked barefoot over the icy cobblestones, flinch when hit square with mud or a rock. They carried neither flag nor weapons. Their breath billowed like they were hard-ridden horses. It hung around their heads like smoke. (33.25)
Isabel's observations of the Patriot prisoners of war captured at Fort Washington gives us a haunting picture of the conditions of battle. Clearly, Curzon's unit has already suffered a great deal, and they're going to suffer more in jail. The zeal of the toppling of King George's statue is gone, as seen by the absence of weapons or a flag.
"When the battle finally started, the men fired their guns so fast the barrels grew hot. The cannon smoke was thick as fog. I saw the most horrid sights, Country, not fit for the eyes of any person." (35.56)
Curzon's emotional description of the horrors he witnessed in battle is a poignant portrayal of the merciless bloodshed of war. What makes his story particular disturbing, though, is how fighting has changed Curzon. He's no longer the feisty kid in a red hat we met at the beginning of the story; he's been hardened by the blood sacrifice of conflict.
The British promised each prisoner would receive two pounds of pork and hardtack biscuit every week. They did not announce that the pork was often spoiled, nor that the men had to eat it raw for there was no fire to cook it over. (36.13)
Just to recap: These guys are already living in a freezing cold jail in the dead of winter with few possessions or provisions. It seems like the British are trying to appease the American military leaders by giving food of some kind to the prisoners, though their dishonesty in the actual quality of the donations reveals the low value they place on the lives of their enemy.
The war seemed fought with as much paper as bullets, what with the letters and the passes and permissions piled on the table, orders received and recorded, recordings of conferences noted down. (40.55)
Here's what's kind of fascinating about Isabel: For a young slave girl who carries little to no value in society, she sees the broadest picture of the war out of any character in the story. She witnesses the deplorable conditions the prisoners of war are kept in, as well as the privileged, bloodless state of military leaders off the battlefield. Being "chained between two nations," as she says, may not afford her great opportunities in using either army to gain freedom, but it does give her a panoramic view of the conflict's two sides.
"Slaves don't read," Mr. Robert said. "I should beat you for lying, girl."
Pastor Weeks held up his hand. "It's true. Your aunt had some odd notions. She taught the child herself. I disapproved, of course. Only leads to trouble." (2.16-17)
Slaves knowing how to read does lead to trouble… for their owners. Isabel's eventual victory proves it. If she hadn't been able to read and write, she wouldn't have received the message of Common Sense, or even filled out the pass that gives her freedom. Clearly, slave owners recognized the power of language, and that keeping it out of the hands of enslaved people helps keep them obedient and inferior. Fortunately, Isabel is an anomaly and is able to beat the system.
I could not see where we came from or where we were going. Maybe the ship would blow off course and land in a country without New York or people who bought and sold children. (4.5)
Isabel views a world without slavery with a kind of childish fancy that is heartbreaking for us to witness. The truth is, being a slave is the only existence she knows. She was born into it, and a life without its restrictions is impossible to imagine.
"You are a small black girl, Country," [Curzon] said bitterly. "You are a slave, not a person. They'll say things in front of you they won't say in front of the white servants. 'Cause you don't count to them." (6.62)
Curzon's observation that Loyalist commanders don't see their slaves as a threat if they witness sensitive conversations proves that slavery is meant to strip them of all power. Not Curzon, though—he's smart enough to know that in order to be truly owned, he has to consent to it by surrendering his thoughts and actions. Just because their owners don't give them credit to act on the information they hear doesn't mean that slaves can't do something with it.
I went cold with anger, then hot, then cold again. It wasn't right. It wasn't right for one body to own another or pull strings to make them jump. Why was Madam allowed to hit me or to treat Ruth like a toy? (8.22)
Even though Isabel has spent her entire life as a slave, it's interesting that she seems to be asking these questions for the first time. We can assume from Mary Finch's desire to free her family and teach Isabel to read that working for her was better than, say, working for the Locktons. It's only now, subjected to owners who truly see them as possessions, not people, that Isabel begins to question the system she's bought into forever.
"The beast has grown too large," the mayor said. "If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head." (14.47)
When the mayor of New York says this, he's really speaking of the growing movement for independence and the need to snuff it out before it gains more power. On a metaphorical level, though, he could also be speaking of Isabel and her desire for freedom. While she doesn't recognize it at this point, Isabel has the power to overthrow her masters and seek her own liberty. She's growing larger in her ability to do so, though, and more capable of "breaking free."
The gentleman who accompanied Madam stepped forward. "The law is quite clear on this matter, sir. None of us want to live in a world where servants rule their masters." (21.103)
The Loyalist representing Madam when Isabel seeks Colonel Regan's help speaks on a couple of different levels here. Of course, he's first talking about the perceived dangers of slaves overruling the people who own them. He's also talking, though, about a world where the colonies of Great Britain rise up above their mother country's authority.
Madam ran me like a donkey all the next day, then demanded that I stay awake all night to make rolls for breakfast because the bakers in town were rebels, and they had fled. I did as she ordered and ruined two perfectly fine batches of dough. I threw them down the privy and baked cornbread deep into the night for that was one thing my hands knew how to bake. (30.9)
There are a ton of moments in the book where Madam Lockton is inhumane to the point of evil, but this is one where she actually seems to be ignorant of the logic of asserting her power. If Isabel stays awake all night, of course she's going to ruin the dough. The truth is that she sees Isabel as little more than a kitchen appliance that she can plug it before she goes to bed and let it run on its own, unlimited power.
"You bloody beast," I swore. "How dare you let him starve?" The words flew out of my mouth without pause.
"Who are you to reprimand me, girl?" [Dibdin] snarled […] "He's a slave. He will not be treated the same as free men." (37.49-50)
The hierarchy of slave and free touches every aspect of society, including the jail that holds Fort Washington's prisoners of war. To Dibdin, it doesn't matter that Curzon fought and bled alongside him for the same cause; at the end of the day, he's just a slave and doesn't deserve humane treatment.
A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind. (40.48)
Isabel may have blindly accepted slavery as a way of life when she was younger, but witnessing the worst of its evils convinces her by the end of the book that there's nothing to commend the system at all, not even treating slaves with kindness and respect. The truth is, owning another person in itself speaks louder than any comfortable treatment the owner may give the slave.
I laid down one long road of a sentence in my remember […] Way I saw it, Mr. Paine was saying all people were the same, that no one deserved a crown or was born to be higher than another. That's why America could make its freedom.
'Twas a wonder the book did not explode into flames in my hands. (42.6-7)
At the beginning of the story, the pastor at Miss Mary's funeral states that teaching slaves to read "leads to trouble." The way Common Sense transforms Isabel's understanding of both slavery and the colonies' quest for independence proves the truth in this statement—its argument enables Isabel to break free of the system and realize her individual rights as a human being.
My belly flipped with worry. I was breathing hard as if I'd run all the way to the village and back. This was the moment we'd been waiting for, the one that Momma promised would come. It was up to me to take care of things, to find a place for us. I had to be bold. (2.3)
Isabel's courage to step forward and address Mr. Robert regarding her freedom is the first time we start to suspect that Isabel's not one to just sit back and take orders. What's interesting, though, is that she seems to take for granted that she won't have to argue the finer points of Miss Mary's decision. Initially she's concerned about where she and Ruth will go once they're freed, unaware that the first step is still up for debate.
Poppa fought like a lion when they came for him, the strongest lion, roaring; it took five of them with hickory clubs, and then Momma fainted, and I caught baby Ruth and then there was lion's blood on the ground, mixed with the dust like the very earth was bleeding. (2.41)
If you want more information about how Poppa empowers Isabel's life in spite of his absence, you can check out his profile in the "Characters" section, as well as read up on him in the theme of family—but it's pretty clear that Isabel inherited his bravery in standing up for people he cares about. Poppa's willing to shed blood to keep his family together, while Isabel, too, is willing to die for Ruth, Curzon, and Lady Seymour.
Madam Lockton flew off the chest and pointed her finger at us. "Which one of you made that noise?" Her face flushed with rage, her eyes darting back and forth between us.
"I did, ma'am," I quickly lied. (5.71-72)
Is there someone whom you love enough to protect by taking a blow for them? Braving the pain to keep that person from experiencing it would take a lot of courage. Here, Isabel models the bravery that sacrifice requires by taking the responsibility for Ruth's laughter.
If I opened the gate, I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from the master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.
If I opened the gate, I might die of fright. (10.22-23)
Even though she knows what the right thing to do is, Isabel nonetheless wrestles with the potential consequences of her actions several times in the book. Still, she always comes out on the side of suppressing her fear in favor of the greater good that could come from her actions. In this case, she chooses to willingly break the rules in hopes that she can use Master Lockton's bribery plot to win their freedom.
I pulled with all my might and lost my footing. Both the sergeant and me stumbled against the table. The ink bottle overturned and poured across the table and papers. The sick man jumped up with a mighty curse and several ugly statements about my character.
"They want to kill the general!" I finally pulled free of the sergeant's grasp. "I have proof." (16.49-50)
Let's take a minute to appreciate the seriousness of what Isabel's doing here. Armed with her secret spy password, she walks into a Patriot military base and demands to see Colonel Regan. The idea of a slave even speaking to an army official, let alone walking into his quarters, would have been unthinkable. Still, Isabel knows it's a risk she must take in order to free her and Ruth from the danger of the Locktons' home.
"Did you sell Ruth?"
"You will not address me in that insolent manner." Her voice shook a little […]
I took another step up. "Answer me, you miserable cow. Did you sell my sister?" (21.51-52, 54)
Directly confronting Madam about selling Ruth takes guts, and calling her a "miserable cow" takes sheer fearlessness. At this point, there's no time for Isabel to consider what could happen to her for doing this. With Ruth's life at stake, a potential beating seems to be the least of her troubles.
I pulled [Lady Seymour's] arm. She moaned again, but I could not be gentle. I dropped the boxes and doll, draped her arms around me, and half fell down the rest of the stairs. Once on the ground floor, she tried to walk, but one of her legs was failing her. I opened the front door and dragged the two of us out to the street. (31.24)
If you don't think Isabel's a superhero by this point in the book, you might want to stop and assess what just happened. Isabel just carried an elderly woman out of the fiery inferno of her burning house. Not only that, but she manages to rescue Lady Seymour's husband's portrait as well and is willing to leave behind her prized possession—Ruth's doll—in order to do it. Now that's bravery and selflessness.
They walked over the ground where the gallows had been built last summer, where they hung the traitor Hickey. Back in August the Patriots had torn it down to use the wood for the barricades. The British had built their own hangman's platform at the opposite end of the commons. It could kill three people at a time.
The ashes in my soul stirred.
Don't do this. (35.7-8)
When Isabel watches Hickey's execution earlier in the story, it's not just attendance at a public spectacle—it's a reminder of what could happen to her if her activities on behalf of the Patriots were exposed. Again, though, her desire to help Curzon in prison overcomes even her fear of death.
When I thought what they might do to me, I went to the necessary and had me a good puking. But the next day, I made my way up there again – food for the prisoners, water for the Locktons, and every once in awhile, a message to the gap-toothed man in the brown coat at the Golden Hill Tavern. (37.81)
Isabel might seem superhuman at times, but she's not immune to the paralyzing, nausea-inducing fear that comes from doing something that could get you flogged or worse. Even though she's brought low by terror, she still has it in her to get back up and continue her mission.
I shook from the effort of holding myself still, clutching the crumpled paper. Momma said we had to fight the evil inside us by overcoming it with goodness. She said it was a hard thing to do, but it made us worthy.
I breathed deep to steady myself.
I threw the Captain's note into the fire. (43.22-24)
Why is burning a piece of paper such a big deal, you might ask? When Isabel destroys Captain Farrar's note, she's not just defying Madam Lockton's orders, she's declaring once and for all that she sides with the Patriots… which means she is also defying the code that slaves are to align themselves politically with their owners. It's a highly symbolic gesture that makes it clear that she will no longer play by slavery's rules.
"Isabel, remember your place." Pastor Weeks fumbled with the latch on his Bible. "You and your sister belong to Mr. Robert now. He'll be a good master to you." (2.28)
Hmm… a pastor who believes in slavery. Now that's interesting, especially given that slavery shows up a lot as a theme in the Bible. Remember the Israelites being enslaved by Egypt? How about Jesus setting people free from the slavery of sin? The gesture of "fumbling" with his Bible seems to imply that Pastor Weeks recognizes the hypocritical nature of serving God and believing in the institution of slavery.
"We thought you were in London, Elihu."
"London? Never!" exclaimed Lockton. "England offers us nothing but taxes, stamps, and bloodshed."
"How odd. Word from Boston is that you still lick the King's boots." (5.39-41)
Elihu Lockton is the crown prince of hypocrisy. He tries to be a political chameleon and shift to the beliefs of whatever the majority view is in his present company, but he's kind of bad at it. Lockton may say he's against the British, but Bellingham is wise enough to know he doesn't mean it.
"Plenty of folks haven't decided which side they favor. One day they cheer General Washington, the next day they toast the King." (6.48)
Curzon's analysis of New York's critical position in the war shows the hypocritical nature of its people. The bottom line is that even today, people want to be associated with winners. It seems that undecided New Yorkers support whoever the winning side currently is—and if it changes, their views will, too.
"Master Lockton claimed he was a Patriot on the docks." […]
"He was faking to protect his skin. Some folks switch back and forth. One day they're for the King, the next, it's all 'liberty and freedom, huzzah!' A tribe of Mr. Facing Both Ways, that's what you'll find in New York." (7.47-48)
New York might be the equivalent of a modern day swing state, but back in Revolutionary times, there was a little more at stake than what side of a political squabble to support. For Lockton, supporting the Loyalists could mean arrest for treachery; the same goes for other New Yorkers. While wanting to support the most successful side of the conflict is one aspect of their hypocrisy, simply not wanting to get arrested or hanged seems like rational enough motivation to keep switching sides.
The gentleman who accompanied Madam stepped forward. "The law is quite clear on this matter, sir. None of us want to live in a world where servants rule their masters. Both the Parliament and the Congress give Madam Lockton rule over her slave." (21.103)
It's interesting that even though the Patriots and Loyalists basically hate each other's guts, the one thing they have in common is that they both want slavery to exist. This is a pretty complicated idea for the colonies, which feel enslaved to Britain and are fighting for their own freedom. It seems hard to believe that the same Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence could also say that cruel Madam Lockton has authority over Isabel.
"Listen," [Curzon] started. "Our freedom—"
I did not let him continue. "You are blind. They don't want us free. They just want liberty for themselves." (25.48-49).
Oh, burn. Curzon, you just got served. Isabel lays it all down in a pretty blatant way, and from her perspective, the Patriots don't see liberty as something that should belong to all citizens. Clearly, "we the people" doesn't actually mean "all the people."
The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. "The British promise freedom to slaves but won't give it to the white rebels," she said as she pushed the handle up and down. "The rebels want to take freedom, but they won't share it with us." (26.34)
Say what? Some of the viewpoints on slavery during the way are super confusing. Basically, the British want to help the slaves as a means of weakening the Patriots who own them. On the other hand, the rebels are really good at rationalizing their views on slavery. Everything seems totally backward, revealing the sticky nature of a slave-owning country seeking freedom.
I was chained between two nations. (29.50)
Isabel wants to take sides in the war—not because she feels invested in freedom for a nation, but because she wants freedom for herself. The only question is whether the Patriots or the Loyalists will do the most to help her. In the end, the answer turns out to be neither; as she discovers, both sides view enslaved people as pawns to play when they're useful, but cast aside when they aren't.
"You named him after the King?" Hannah asked.
"Perhaps," Sarah said cheerfully […] "A name like George is a good one on either side of the ocean." (40.28-29)
'Twas Lady Seymour who did it. Her with her begging forgiveness for not buying me and telling me I'd have been a good slave for her. Her with her wet eyes and skeleton hands. Did she never think about setting me free? That would be a fine question to ask. (41.40)
We've got to give Lady Seymour some credit—although she failed, she at least thought about doing the right thing. She also ultimately shares this with Isabel because she thinks it will offer some comfort to her. Still, the larger question is what Lady Seymour would have done with Isabel after buying her. If she truly believes what's being done to Isabel is wrong, wouldn't the correct response be to free her? Even though Lady Seymour expresses some anti-slavery views throughout the book, she still seems to fall victim to its influence.
"You always were the best rememberer I ever saw. We used to make a game of it. Tell you a line to memorize, or a song. Didn't matter how much time had passed, you'd have the whole thing in your mouth. Made your parents proud." (3.43)
In terms of memorizing things, Isabel is kind of a child prodigy. Jenny's recollection of her perfect memory, even as a child, foreshadows the way this gift will aid Isabel in her quest for freedom.
"Two words: 'ad astra.' It's Latin; it means 'to the stars.' Will you be able to remember it?"
"I never forget a thing, sir." (16.93-94)
Here's the payoff for that description of Isabel's child prodigy memory: She really doesn't forget anything. If you're going to be a spy at age thirteen, it only helps to be one who can remember stuff on cue. Especially secret passwords.
[Lady Seymour] paused in the doorway. "You miss your parents terribly, don't you?"
"While you lay in the fever, you spoke of them with great affection, as it they were in the room with us." (24.34-36)
In the midst of the aftermath of her branding, Isabel finds herself completely alone. Even as she lies partly unconscious in her fever, she still draws on the memory of her parents to comfort her.
I preferred the chores that took me out of the kitchen, for it was there the bees tricked me into seeing Ruth's ghost playing on the floor, churning butter, or counting out kernels of corn. When her voice whispered to me, I caught fire again, from my toes to my face, and I burned slow, like damp wood. (25.9)
Memory can help Isabel, but it can also hurt her. In the weeks after Ruth is sent away, she finds herself haunted by her sister, surrounded by reminders that she's gone. Not only that, but Ruth's absence reminds Isabel of the ordeal she went through with the trial and branding, and she can still feel the loss and the burning.
Christmas at home had meant eating Momma's bread pudding with maple syrup and nutmeg, and reading the Gospel of Matthew out loud whilst Ruth played in Momma's lap. I was miles away from celebrating like that. I tried to bury the remembery, but it kept floating to the top of my mind like a cork in a stormy sea, and foolish tears spilled over. (38.5)
Isabel's thoughts of Christmas with Momma and Ruth are another instance where her perfect memory inflicts pain. She's lost them both, and for the first time ever, she's spending this emotionally loaded holiday alone. It's also a cool example of Isabel's unique voice in the novel—there's something lyrical about "remembery" that fits her character more than the word memory would.
It took some convincing to explain my mission, but I spoke polite and firm and held out the bread pudding, and the children snuck out in their nightclothes and just about dove into the bowl. The mother took the basket and said, "Thank you," and then "Thank you again," and then "Thank you most, most kindly," and they went back inside.
I hummed a carol as I walked away, finally feeling at peace. (38.51-52)
Ultimately, memories of her past Christmases with family persuade Isabel to celebrate this year by doing an act of kindness for someone else. She bakes Momma's bread pudding, but rather than indulge herself by stuffing her face with it, she takes it to a Loyalist family in the district that suffered the worst damage from the fire. While she can't recreate her memories from the past, she can still give others the feeling of warmth and comfort she associates with them.
I dried my face. Why was I thinking of Ruth? I'd worked hard to pack her away from my mind, along with the thoughts of Momma and Poppa and the life Ruth and I were promised. Didn't help to ponder things that were forever gone. It only made a body restless and fill up with bees all wanting to sting something. (41.38)
Isabel's flawless memory becomes so much of a curse in the time after Ruth's departure that she actually wills herself to forget her family. Obviously, though, it's not quite that easy. No matter how painful the loss is, it's impossible for her to forget the family that has brought her through the pain of slavery.
Momma said we had to fight the evil inside us by overcoming it with goodness. She said it was a hard thing to do, but it made us worthy. (43.22)
Memory also plays a role in helping Isabel decide how to handle hard situations. Shortly after she recalls this lesson from Momma, she chooses to overcome Madam Lockton's evil intent for her through the goodness of protecting the Patriots by throwing Captain Farrar's note in the fire.
When Ruth and I slept down here, the far corner of the cellar went muddy in a heavy rain. Maybe the damp had eaten at the boards […] I sat back and put my feet on each board in turn and pushed. The third board I tried gave way a little. So did the next two. (43.69-70)
Isabel's memory is so amazing that it helps her break out of the potato bin. Specifically, her attention to detail and ability to remember even the smallest thing she notices give her the ability to escape.
I closed my eyes and thought of home; the smell of fresh-cut hay and the taste of raspberries. Robins chasing bugs in the bean patch. Setting worms to work at the base of the corn plants. Showing Ruth what was weed and what was flower…
I opened my eyes, dipped the quill, and wrote out my true name. (43.99-100)
Memory ultimately triumphs as one of Isabel's most important skills. Where it once caused Isabel great pain and reminded her of loss, her memory of home eventually empowers her to give herself a new identity: a free person named Isabel Gardener.
[Mr. Robert] released me with a shove and pointed to the cemetery where they buried white people. "Go pray for her that owned you, girl." (1.34)
Whoa—that was cold. The least he could have done was let Isabel finish paying her respects to her mother before she visited her mistress's grave. Nonetheless, the rules of slavery are so strict that they don't even allow her the dignity of saying goodbye to her mother. According to her master, her loyalties lie with Miss Mary, not Momma.
"Wait," Jenny announced loudly. "I'll… I'll take them."
The table froze. A person like Jenny did not speak to folks like the Locktons or Mr. Robert, not in that manner. Lockton stared at her as if she had grown a second head. (3.92-93)
Social class distinctions are pretty huge in the lives of people like the Locktons. That's what makes Jenny's statement that she'll take the girls so shocking—according to social rules, she shouldn't even be talking to these people at all. Since Madam takes precautions to increase her offer for the girls so Jenny can't counter it, this social code also gets Isabel and Ruth sold to the Locktons rather than being allowed to stay with a woman who's the closest thing to family they've got.
The toothless sailor approached us again and pointed down to the dock where the crates and casks stamped LOCKTON & FOOTE were being stacked. "That's where you belong. Don't wander off or one of them soldiers will shoot you dead." (5.9)
Isn't it scary to think of a society where you're so dehumanized that even attempting to violate the rules can get you killed? Imagine the fear Isabel and Ruth must feel at being told this… and by a freaky looking pirate with no teeth, nonetheless.
If I opened the gate, I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed after the sunset without a pass from the master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. (10.22)
When you think about the massive amount of regulations Isabel practically collapses under as the Locktons' slave, the risks she attempts to take to secure freedom for her and Ruth become pretty astonishing. She recognizes here that the most overwhelming task ahead of her isn't going to Bellingham's and ratting on Lockton—it's being brave enough to take the first step out of the gate and violate the rules.
[Madam] flew into the bookcase, causing several books to tumble to the ground. I almost reached for her but was afraid to anger Lockton any further.
"I command you to stay here, Anne. This is your duty and you will obey me." (7.32-33)
As if he doesn't have enough people to order around already, Lockton seems to consider his wife little more than one of the house servants. It's true that she's pretty disrespectful to him—what husband or wife would put up with the kind of stuff she says? Still, telling your wife that it's her duty to obey you is laying on the rules a little thick.
Colonel Regan fastened his collar without looking at me. "The law binds my hands and my actions. You must return with your mistress," he said, concentrating on his task. "Even during times of war, we must follow the rules of propriety and order." (21.112)
Wait a minute… It's considered proper and orderly for humans to own other humans and be physically abusive? Not in our book. Colonel Regan's statement is yet another example of the strict observance of slavery in colonial society—even if it means Isabel's life.
"We are now led by men from Virginia, I am told," [Madam] said, "land of my birth. I assure Your Honor that in Virginia, we do not tolerate the rebellion of slaves."
The judge nodded. "Once kindled, rebellion can spread like wildfire." (22.34-35)
The judge's statement here raises some questions about why the rules of this society are in place to begin with. Obviously, they're placed on slaves to keep them from rebelling and make them subordinate to their masters. But could he also be talking about the spread of the rebellion against the British? Don't forget—King George placed a ton of regulations on the colonists, too, and we all know how that turned out.
I thought of what she said and found a slim thread of hope to grasp hold of. "Begging pardon again, ma'am, but do I work for you now?"
[Lady Seymour] let the curtain fall. "I am afraid not. Anne insists that you be returned to her household as soon as you are able. The law supports her position, I fear, and in these unsettled times, there is little remedy." (24.31-32)
Once again, the law, in all its infinite wisdom, condemns Isabel to be sent back to work for a woman who broke a painting over her head, had her branded, and sold her sister out from under her. Isabel literally has no one on her side in this matter, not even the rules of a society that's allegedly seeking freedom.
[The pass] was signed with lots of fancy titles that belonged to the colonel and the commandant, and the King Himself. I wished that there would have been a space for Her Majesty, Queen Charlotte of Great Britain to sign it, too. She and me shared a birthday now, for I was reborn as Isabel Gardener and that paper proved it. (44.101)
In the end, Isabel chooses to use the law to her advantage. Because she has the rare skill of being able to read, she's able to fill out the pass required in order to be a free slave, taking the lead to free herself rather than wait for someone else to do it for her.
"Smallpox is tricky," Miss Mary Finch said to me when Momma died. "There's no telling who it'll take." The pox had left Ruth and me with scars like tiny stars scattered on our skin. It took Momma home to Our Maker. (1.17)
If you don't know what smallpox is, that's a good thing. It means that we've advanced so far in medical science that it's not really something we deal with today. Back then, though, getting sickness of any kind was a matter of life and death. Here Isabel seems to compare the relatively minor effects of the disease on her and her sister to the suffering that led her mother to death, weighing the fact that it chose to take Momma and not them.
My cheek burned, but I fought back the hot tears and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. 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)
Not all of Isabel's suffering is inflicted on her without consent—some of it she deliberately chooses in order to protect her sister. When she takes the blame for Ruth's laughter at the docks, she knows what she's doing and is willing to take the punishment that comes, but she still feels pain and shock at Madam's brutality. Nonetheless, she's comforted by the fact that Ruth is safe from her suffering.
I saved the cobwebs, twisting them around a rage and storing them by our pallet in the cellar. Cobwebs were handy when a person had a bloody cut. (8.1)
Who here likes spiders? Yeah, that's what we thought. Now imagine living in a basement in a world without Band-Aids and having to scrunch up their webs to put on bloody wounds. It's a small detail, but reveals Isabel's unflinching resourcefulness in dealing with pain.
"What news?" Madam demanded. Her red eyes perched above dark rings from a sleepless night. A livid purple welt had raised on the left side of her face where Lockton had struck her. Most of the bruises on her arms and shoulders were hid under her gown, but she walked stiff and sore as an old crone. (17.40)
Madam Lockton isn't exactly the most likeable character in this book, but you have to admit to feeling sorry for her—not just because she's prejudiced, hypocritical, and self-centered (read: terrible), but because she's trapped in an abusive relationship. Is it possible that she inflicts suffering on others as a way to regain the control she doesn't have in her marriage?
Becky watched me go to and fro. "The sweet milk Madam made up? I figure it contained a sleep potion, knocked you out cold so they could spirit her away. I am dreadful, powerful sorry, but they sold her away from you." (21.35)
It's bad enough that Madam Lockton decides to sell Ruth out from under Isabel, but it's even worse that she drugs Isabel in order to do it. Watching Isabel wake up to learn that her sister is gone and her subsequent grief is one of the story's most painful moments.
The man stepped back and pulled the iron away. The fire in my face burned on and on, deep through my flesh, scarring my soul. Stars exploded out the top of my head and all of my words and all of my rememberies followed them up to the sun, burning to ash that floated back and settled in the mud. (23.18)
Anderson's description of Isabel's branding is probably the most graphic moment in her story, and she expertly uses imagery to allow us to feel Isabel's pain along with her. Being deliberately burned in the face as a punishment is hard enough for us to imagine, but the details of what Isabel endures give us a clear idea of her suffering and shame.
Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul. Dark honey filled up inside me, drowning out my thoughts and making it hard to move my eyes and hands. I worked as a puppet trained to scrub and carry, curtsy and nod. (25.1)
One thing Anderson is really awesome at is creating metaphors to symbolize Isabel's pain. The idea of bees making a hive inside her, for example, says everything—we can imagine the constant buzzing and stinging as the grief over losing Ruth takes up residence in her body.
"A scar is a sign of strength," [Grandfather] said quietly. "The sign of a survivor." (26.51)
Grandfather's speech to Isabel about finding her "river Jordan" and embracing her scar as a symbol of her survival is a turning point in how Isabel perceives her suffering. After the branding and loss of Ruth, Isabel has about given up on life; Grandfather, though, begins to quicken the idea in her mind that things don't have to be this way.
We passed countless people standing in the streets like statues, their toes bare on the stones, nightclothes blowing in the unnatural breeze, mouths agape. Carts rolled by carrying half-naked people, bleeding and dazed. A collection of charred bodies had been stacked on a corner, not fully covered by a blanket. A child's boot and stocking lay in the gutter, next to an overturned rain barrel. (31.41)
As the New York fire rages, we at first only see what's going on in Lady Seymour's house—mainly, Isabel's determination to rescue her from the blaze. It's only when they escape to the outside and begin walking to the Locktons' that Isabel sees the full devastation of the fire. We only see brief images here, but the descriptions of the suffering, half dead victims, the bodies, and most poignantly, a single child's shoe paint a vivid picture of the widespread suffering of New York.
A thought surfaced through my ashes.
She cannot chain my soul.
Yes, she could hurt me. She'd already done so. But what was one more beating? A flogging, even? I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could no longer harm Ruth and she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her. (38.32-34)
Up to this point, Isabel has been giving Madam Lockton permission to hurt her insofar as her body is enslaved by the Locktons, but her soul is not. This realization goes a long way in empowering her to seek her freedom.