I'd begun to wonder if I should dub myself "The Finicky Reader." So much of what I was picking up lately just wasn't doing it for me. Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson was a welcome change, or maybe a welcome return to normal. It doesn't hurt that the book is in my favorite genre, historical fiction. Set during the Revolutionary War, Chains follows the story of thirteen-year-old Isabel, a slave whose elderly female owner has written a will freeing her her upon her death. But the funeral has barely ended when we learn just how chained Isabel and her small sister Ruth are: The lawyer who drew up the will is gone, fled to Boston because of a threatened blockade, and the deceased's only living relative sniffs, "The girl is lying, then. She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved." He takes Isabel and Ruth to Newport, where he sells them to an unpleasant couple, the Locktons. With their new owners, they sail to New York City.
The Locktons are Tories, but Anderson doesn't cast all of her Patriots as Good and Loyalists as Bad. Madam Lockton is in fact the only throughly dislikable character, instantly despising the mentally challenged Ruth (who will later prove to be epileptic) and slapping Isabel across the face for the first time while they are still at the docks. Also at the docks are Patriots who suspect Lockton of being a Tory, and a slave boy, Curzon, who belongs to one of them. Quickly sizing up the situation, Curzon wastes little time asking Isabel to spy for the Americans, against her new owners.
But Isabel holds back. "I'm just fighting for me and Ruth," she says. "You can keep your rebellion." Curzon explains that New York has been bouncing back and forth between the British and the Patriots and is currently held by the Patriots. That if people like Lockton can be arrested, that would strengthen the Patriots' hold. That there are people among the Patriots who, if she would spy for them, might see to it that she gets to that lawyer who can prove she is free. When she asks how she could possibly learn anything of value, Curzon speaks bitterly. "You are a small black girl. 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. It happens all the time to me."
Fearful of retaliation, especially toward Ruth, Isabel resists at first. Of course we know she will eventually spy, that conditions at the Locktons' will disillusion her to the point that she will. And after Madam Lockton mistreats and then sells Ruth, Isabel does spy, passing secrets to Curzon, his Patriot owners, and their associates. Yet nothing is simple. Isabel has begun to wonder if her own chances for freedom are better if she appeals for help to the British. Many of them don't support slavery. Her friendship with Curzon rises to a new level when Madam Lockton, suspicious of her activities, has her branded on the cheek with the letter I, for Insolence. It is he who lends support, care, and food when she needs it. And when the tide turns in the war, and Curzon is among those captured by the British and imprisoned, it's Isabel's visits that literally keep him alive. One of the best scenes in the book occurs when Isabel negotiates, with the toughest prisoner, Curzon's humane treatment in the prison in exchange for her return trips bringing food.
Chains is an absorbing Revolutionary story made more interesting because of the New York setting, the balanced view of both sides, and the focus on a Northern slave. I was pleased to learn at the end that the story of Isabel and Curzon will be continued in another volume -- especially because the conclusion of this story is left so obviously open-ended.