The summer before eighth grade I was assigned a dreaded summer reading project. The school system provided a list of books, and I chose the one that seemed to have a female protagonist (duh). The book was called Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and I didn’t finish it. I had a summer of time, some long planes rides, and a keen liking for reading in general. I still did not finish the book.
So now I’m a senior in high school, and the world’s steadily exploding, and this book has been collecting dust on my bookshelf. I picked it up a few months ago, and I’m sort of ashamed to report that I am not done with it. I’m just passed the point I stopped at four years ago.
However, with a better grasp on the subject (and a higher Lexile level), I get it. In that, I mean I can appreciate Laurie Halse Anderson’s work, and I see myself finishing this book when I don’t have a million other things to do.
The first of the Seeds of America series, Chains follows a young girl called Isabel who is enslaved during the American Revolution, “property” of Miss Mary Finch, who’s only just bit the dust. While alive, Miss Finch remained fair to Isabel and her sister, Ruth; she even valued their education (a novel concept). In her will, she ordered the girls to be freed when her time had come; this was sound, and Isabel tossed the idea at Miss Finch’s brother. He did not agree, and the Finch lawyer is stuck in chaotic Boston, so negotiation isn’t an option. Isabel and Ruth are shuttled off to a bunch of New York Loyalists (those pledged to the current King of England and loyal to his policies against American individuality), the Locktons.
The Locktons suck. Mrs. Lockton is a first-class nightmare. She takes away Isabel’s name and calls her Sal. Isabel gets out to town the first day with the Locktons and meets a slave named Curzon, who wants her to join he and his owner to fight for the Patriots, or those pro-American-independence. Isabel sort of declines; her job is only to protect Ruth. However, when Ruth’s limits are pushed by Mrs. Lockton, Isabel agrees to help Curzon and is able to obtain information rather easily. This is largely due to the common concept that African Americans (and slaves in general), at the time, were not human beings. Loyalist material was opening talked about around the girls, as if they didn’t have ears at all.
Throughout the remainder of the parts I’ve reached, a multitude of things have dragged me down. The degree of conspicuous degradation and utter ignorance is of such massive proportion that in the place that I am sitting right now, a metro-Atlanta suburb, it is unfathomable, even if you don’t try to block it out. It’s a story, here, now, where we haven’t been touched by it.
Isabel and Ruth are stolen from their mother, shipped across the Atlantic to be stripped of their humanity and culture. Isabel is branded with an “I” for insolence. Her sister is beaten so religiously that she develops seizures and is thought to be possessed by the Devil, and she is transferred to a distant Lockton estate while Isabel is drugged. Curzon is drafted by the Patriots, captured, and abused by his fellow inmates on account of being a slave. Mrs. Lockton locks Isabel in a potato bin; she threatens to drown her in the box. Isabel is consistently verbally berated by Mrs. Lockton and countless others, and yet she finally breaks free and boats down a river (rowing enough to pull Curzon and herself, as damaged as she is both emotionally and physically) to find Ruth.
These characters, assures Anderson, are fictional. Their stories, on the other hand, are not. They’re gathered from primary research and threaded together cohesively so they might serve as some sort of warning. In addition to this series, Anderson has also written other books such as Speak, which is perhaps more recognizable (there’s an indie film adaptation starring our queen, Kristen Stewart). Speak gives sexual assault a literary voice; Anderson is no stranger to controversially imperative topics. Through all of her work, Anderson sought (and seeks, currently) to draw attention to topics like rape and human trafficking and victim-blaming and overall discrimination, and then she wishes to stop the whispering and start the yelling. However, after nearly twenty years, Speak and similar publications have only melted the tip of the iceberg that is victim-blaming, and Chains obviously has not touched places like Libya, where an ACTUAL SLAVE TRADE IS OCCURRING RIGHT NOW due to migrant backlogging and a lack of any substantial laws prohibiting it.
In an interview with BOOK RIOT in 2014, Laurie Halse Anderson shared that censorship in schools “make[s] [her] blood boil”, and that those who regulate the banned-book list make her “fight harder”.
After my research and re-reading, I feel a sense of pride that my Podunk school district let Chains on our summer reading list, especially at the age that we were the first time so many of us attempted reading it. Buy the book, get it at a library; I don’t care. The print is small, yes, I know. That’s why I didn’t finish it the first time. This is no mindset to have, so don’t have it.
I’m going to exit with a bangin’ quote from the book. It goes like this:
“She cannot chain my soul. Yes, she could hurt me. She’d already done so…I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her.”
– Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains