Laurie Halse Anderson sometimes thinks her career as a children's author is too good to be true. She says she expects someone to tap her on the shoulder and say, "Honey, we gave you the wrong life—you're supposed to be an accountant, or shovel manure."
It's unlikely she'll need to brush up on her manure-shoveling skills, though. In the last decade, Anderson has written a range of well-received books for young readers, from picture books to young adult novels. She is perhaps best known for Speak, a 1999 National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor book that was adapted into a television movie.
A former journalist, Anderson says she was invited to help with the screenplay, but decided to leave it in the hands of the filmmaking team. She did take a small role, though: "I was the lunch lady. All I had to do was drop mashed potatoes on a plate, and it took seven takes. It made me realize I shouldn't give up my day job."
The latest result of Anderson's "day job" is Chains, a historical novel for middle-grade readers, set in 1776 New York City. "The idea grew out of a really compelling need to understand what slavery was like in the Colonial period," Anderson explains during an interview from her home in upstate New York. "I'm a Northerner and always thought it was a Southern thing, a Civil War thing. I had a lot of learning to do."
Isabel, the 13-year-old protagonist, was the first of the book's characters to make her appearance in Anderson's imagination. "I went to a marvelous exhibit called 'Slavery in New York,' and as I walked in, there were shapes of a man and woman made out of thin wire. Your eyes could almost go over them and not see them," she says. "I thought a lot about what it might've been like to be a person who was enslaved during a time when everyone around you was talking about freedom and liberty—only they weren't talking about you."
In Chains, Anderson describes the overlooked people who were sold into slavery and brought to New England by masters who, even as they worked to win freedom for a new nation, did not grant it to those forced to serve them. Chains is a suspenseful, sad and engrossing tale made all the more vivid by Anderson's devoted attention to detail, from the smells of the city to the characters' clothing.
The author takes a two-pronged approach to research: she begins by reading secondary sources written by historians. As the information takes up residence in her brain, the characters begin to make themselves known. "The magical part happens when a character starts to whisper . . . when I'm running or in the garden, and I hear the voice. Then, my task is to come up with characters and find a way to braid those characters with the historical events he or she is involved in," she says.
Anderson also looks at primary sources, such as newspaper accounts, letters and countless runaway slave advertisements. Then, she says, "I go through and make sure I have enough sensory details for my readers, who know a lot about video games but have no context for the 18th century."
In addition to providing education, entertainment and historical context, Anderson also believes her books can offer young readers something more: "I have a theory about historical fiction, particularly for middle-grade readers," she says. "Fifth grade or so is a time before you get into the really difficult challenges of late adolescence. Books allow kids to test themselves out against a scary world, but in a safe way—and historical fiction allows kids to test their morality, too."
There are plenty of moral questions in Chains, but Anderson is careful to keep things from being too cut-and-dried: sometimes even cruel people can inspire sympathy, and a decision that seems beneficial may have negative consequences for others. Anderson says these paradoxes—and their role in history—are well worth exploring. "My editor and I have had such incredible, good conversations about America and race. How can we love our country and our history when there are things that make us uncomfortable?"
She adds, "We came to the conclusion that the best way to love our country is to look at things that are uncomfortable, look them full in the eye and say, 'Wow, this is making me squirm. I need to learn more about it, take those lessons and move forward.'Â "
Readers who want to move forward along with Isabel (and Curzon, a young man and Patriot slave who becomes her friend and ally) will be glad to know there are two related books in the works, Forge and Ashes.
"History can be so boring, but if you tell a story, kids will remember," Anderson says, "and they will learn."
Linda M. Castellitto writes from North Carolina, one of the 13 original Colonies. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2009 Spring
Slaves Isabel and Ruth are shipped to New York in May 1776. Isabel, overhearing her Loyalist master's scheme to kill George Washington, helps foil the plot. Her role forgotten by the Patriots, Isabel realizes it's up to her alone to find freedom. Anderson's novel is remarkable for its strong sense of place and nuanced portrait of slavery during the Revolutionary War. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2008 #6
Despite protests that her former owner's will had freed them, Isabel Finch and her five-year-old sister Ruth are sold and shipped from Newport, Rhode Island, to New York City in May 1776. Their new owners are fierce Loyalists, and one young African American rebel sees Isabel as a potential spy: "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." At first, Isabel isn't keen to help: "I'm just fighting for me and Ruth. You can keep your rebellion." But when she overhears her master's scheme to kill George Washington, Isabel reports it to a Patriot colonel. The rebels foil the plot; Isabel, however, is forgotten. Finally, Isabel realizes that it's up to her -- and her alone -- to find freedom. 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. A detailed author's note separates fact from historical fiction. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2008 September #1
" â€˜Freedom and liberty' has many meanings," but enslaved Isabel knows that while Loyalists and Patriots battle for their own versions of freedom, she is "chained between two nations" that uphold slavery. She wonders, "If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?" Anderson brilliantly recreates New York City in the summer of 1776, viewed through the eyes of a remarkable heroine. Taught to read by her previous owner, Isabel knows the Bible and has memorized poetry, and her eloquent first-person voice portrays her life as a slave even as she spies for the rebels, covertly delivers food to Bridewell Prison and plots her own escape. Readers will care deeply about Isabel and may feel frustrated by the abrupt ending to the novel, clearly poised for a sequel or two. While waiting, they can enjoy M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves, another superb take on the subject. (author's note) (Historical fiction. 10 & up) Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2009 January
When an author makes history come alive with sights, smells, and sounds so that you feel transported, and when the author also gives you astute characters with depth that connect you to the time period, you feel an impression that goes beyond the words on the page. Anderson?s newest book, set in New York from 1776 through the winter of 1777, introduces Isabel and her young sister Ruth who should be free slaves. Their owner has passed away from smallpox and Miss Finch?s nephew has inherited. Because her will cannot be found, the nephew sells the girls to the evil Locktons, who are ?dirty? Loyalists. Soon after they are shipped to New York, Isabel meets Curzon who says that she can claim freedom by spying on the Locktons for the rebels. Chains bursts at the binding with historical authenticity?from language usage to food references, from the battles described to a hanging. This is perfect for middle and high school American Studies, Civil Rights, and African American History. There is a Q&A at the end explaining in detail what is fiction and what is real. Huzzah for including references. This is the first of a trilogy; the next book will be narrated by Curzon. Highly Recommended. Constance G. Pappas, Skyridge Middle School, Camas, Washington Â¬ 2009 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 September #1
Pursuing similar themes as M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing , this gripping novel offers readers a startlingly provocative view of the Revolutionary War. Isabel Finch, the narrator, and her five-year-old sister, Ruth, are to be freed from slavery upon the death of their mistress in Rhode Island, but the mistress's unscrupulous heir easily persuades the local pastor to dispense with reading the will. Before long Isabel and Ruth are in New York City, the property of a Loyalist couple, whose abusiveness inspires Isabel to a dangerous course: she steals into the Patriot army camp to trade a crucial Loyalist secret in exchange for passage to Rhode Island for herself and Ruth. But not only does the Patriot colonel fail to honor his promise, he personally hands her over to her Loyalist mistress when she runs away, to face disastrous consequences. Anderson (Speak ; Fever 1793 ) packs so much detail into her evocation of wartime New York City that readers will see the turmoil and confusion of the times, and her solidly researched exploration of British and Patriot treatment of slaves during a war for freedom is nuanced and evenhanded, presented in service of a fast-moving, emotionally involving plot. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)[Page 54]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Gr 6-10-- Set in New York City at the beginning of the American Revolution, Chains addresses the price of freedom both for a nation and for individuals. Isabel tells the story of her life as a slave. She was sold with her five-year-old sister to a cruel Loyalist family even though the girls were to be free upon the death of their former owner. She has hopes of finding a way to freedom and becomes a spy for the rebels, but soon realizes that it is difficult to trust anyone. She chooses to find someone to help her no matter which side he or she is on. With short chapters, each beginning with a historical quote, this fast-paced novel reveals the heartache and struggles of a country and slave fighting for freedom. The characters are well developed, and the situations are realistic. An author's note gives insight into issues surrounding the Revolutionary War and the fight for the nation's freedom even though 20 percent of its people were in chains. Well researched and affecting in its presentation, the story offers readers a fresh look at the conflict and struggle of a developing nation.--Denise Moore, O'Gorman Junior High School, Sioux Falls, SD[Page 138]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.