Study Guide

Chains Family

By Laurie Halse Anderson


[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.