Historical Fiction – Chains



Anderson, Laurie Halse. 2008. CHAINS. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 9781416905858.

Plot Summary

During the Revolutionary War the Patriots are fighting for freedom from the British and Isabel is a thirteen-year-old slave girl fighting for the freedom promised to her by her dying owner. But a greedy relative sees Isabel and her sister Ruth only as property, and quickly sells them to the Locktons from New York City. Amidst the backdrop of a new home in New York City, and the cruelty of her new owners, Isabel witnesses the start of the American Revolution. She yearns for freedom and cares little whether the Patriots or the British are the ones to give it to her. But a friendship with Corazon, another slave, complicates her feelings and her actions.

Critical Analysis

Laurie Halse Anderson describes her historical fiction as historical thrillers and that title aptly describes the story of Isabel in this fast paced book. Anderson explores the themes of freedom and family throughout this beautifully crafted book set during the American Revolution.

Isabel is an admirable character who works tirelessly for her owners, and is fiercely protective of her younger sister, Ruth, who is epileptic. Yet her new owner sees an independent streak in Isabel and she does all she can to make her life miserable. Isabel’s contempt for Madam Lockton is evident throughout, “Madam looked down without seeing me… She did not look into my eyes, she did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel.”

Upon arrival in New York City, Isabel meets Corazon, a black slave with an independent streak, who is owned by a Patriot. He helps her find her way the first day in a new city, a new life. He encourages her to spy on her Master and share what she finds with those fighting for freedom from the British. Initially she sees this as the way to gain freedom for herself and Ruth, but soon finds that freedom is not so easily won.

In weaving the theme of freedom throughout the story, Anderson shows its importances in many instances. There is the fight for freedom by the Patriots and Isabel’s fight to gain the freedom that was denied her. As Isabel’s attempts to gain her freedom are squelched time and again, she fights for snipets of personal freedom amidst the oppression imposed by Madam Locket. Isabel arranges to wake early and gather the water for the household and on her way sneaks to the prison to help care for Corzon who has been captured by the British.

Isabel realizes she will never be allowed freedom from Madam Locket, “She was set on keeping my arms and legs dancing to her tune and my soul bound in her chains.” While she finds no relief from the harsh working conditions in the Locket household, she finds some kindness from their aunt, Lady Seymour, who eventually encourages Isabel to seek her own freedom. The book ends with Isabel taking her first steps toward the hope for freedom.

This award-winning author beautifully describes the drudgery of being a slave and the grueling working conditions Isabel endures, rising before the sun to start the fire in the kitchen and working without rest until Madam Locket dismisses her to her sleeping palet in the basement, amongst the potatoes. Anderson adds to the authenticity of the story with excerpts from primary sources at the beginning of each chapter. An example of this is from the Journal of Samuel B. Webb, Washington’s Aide-de-camp, “…Received information that a most horrid plot was on foot by the vile Tory’s… to assassinate His Excellency, and the other general officers.”

In the Appendix at the end of the book, Anderson answers questions about writing the book and gives further historic facts which she weaves throughout the story.

Review Excerpts

THE HORN BOOK: “Anderson’s novel is remarkable for its strong sense of time and place and for its nuanced portrait of slavery and of New York City during the Revolutionary War.”

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL:  “Well researched and affecting in its presentation, the story offers readers a fresh look at the conflict and struggle of a developing nation.”


Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2009

National Book Award Finalist, 2008

Top 10 Black History Books for Youth, 2009

ALA Notable Children’s Book, 2009


  • Download Discussion Questions from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Web Site, http://madwomanintheforest.com/teachers/historical-chains/. Use as a discussion with the class all together, or by having students break into small groups.
  • Share with students Laurie Halse Anderson’s Inspiration for Chains from her Web Site http://madwomanintheforest.com/teachers/historical-chains/.
  • Read the continuation of the story in Anderson’s book Forge, which is told from Corazon’s perscpective.
  • Share other books about the American Revolution including Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution, a picture book by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, and Sarah Bishop by Scott O’Dell.
  • Have students create a diorama depicting one of the scenes from the book.

Image from madwomanintheforest.com


About libraryloverleslie

I love libraries and books, most especially those for children and young adults. I’m a Children’s Librarian in the Pacific Northwest...living the dream!
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