Study Guide

Chains Courage

By Laurie Halse Anderson


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.

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.