I read Volume One of M.T. Anderson’s brilliant two-part Octavian Nothing series several months ago, and as I explained in my review of that novel, I found an excellent article about Yonng Adult Revolutionary War Fiction on the Parents’ Choice website right around the same time. The article, written by Jerry Griswold, explained how history textbooks and young adult fiction have traditionally portrayed the subject of the American Revolution as a fairly uncomplicated war, featuring the British as the bad guys and the Americans as the heroes of the piece. Griswold pointed out, though, that the recent novels of both Anderson and Anderson (no relation) are written from the perspective of African American slaves, who found themselves stuck between the Patriots and the Tories and chose sides based on who they thought was most likely to grant them their own freedom. At the time and particularly from the perspective of the African American slaves, there were not clearly delineated “good” sides and “bad” sides – there were slave masters at home in the colonies and slave masters from over the ocean.
Because they are written from the perspective of African Americans, which is an unusual perspective for YA Revolutionary War fiction, both Octavian Nothing and Chains are complex and compelling novels, fraught with questions about what the right course of action might be for each of the main characters. Each of the novels has their own unique aspects, and what I find most interesting about Chains is that novel is written from the perspective of a young African American girl who, among other things, must care for her mentally retarded younger sister. Though Isabel is a young protagonist, she has been saddled with adult responsibilities and so through her, we sympathize with both the plight of an adolescent character and the plight of a mother/caregiver. Her relationship with her sister Ruth is touching, and when they are separated and she can no longer protect Ruth, it is truly heartbreaking. As she tries to formulate a plan to be reunited with her sister, both Isabel and the reader simultaneously come to understand just how few courses of action are truly left open to the young slave girl.
Isabel is already a mature young woman at the opening of the novel, since her father had been sold away from their family some time ago, and her mother had passed away the previous year. She is accustomed to taking care of Ruth, and yet she is also quite frightened, confused and vulnerable. She prays to the spirit of her mother, hoping for some guidance, and while I don’t know exactly how many readers will be able to fully understand to her fear and grief unless they have lost a parent, I know that I easily connected to her vulnerability as she expressed longing for her mother’s direction and protection. I simultaneously wanted to protect poor Isabel – and yet also admired her strength and knew that in reality, she would have been more likely able to protect me than I would have been able to protect her. Her perseverance and ability to survive show a strength that I doubt I possess in such great quantities – reading about young women like this is always a humbling experience for me. I feel both heartbroken and amazed when I think about how there were thousands of women who had to survive such difficult work and abuse, such exhaustion, cold, hunger and emotional trauma. All these women, found in both historical fiction and in the historical reality of slavery, should be the examples that we look to as feminists even in the twenty-first century. Isabel’s strength and maturity is likewise inspiring.
It is also touching how she bonds with an African American young man named Curzon, who looks out for her despite the fact that he has no real connection with her, and how that relationship moves her toward greater maturity. While Curzon’s request that Isabel spy for the rebels at first brings her nothing but trouble, she eventually gets more and more involved in secretive exchanges and politics because she feels drawn to Curzon and ministers to him once he is captured by the British. It is interesting to see how Isabel’s need for family connections outweighs any political preferences of her own, and through all of this, it becomes more and more apparent how the conflict between the British and the American colonists put African Americans in a complex, difficult position. As Isabel observes, she is caught between two countries, and neither side will grant her freedom. While she remains a slave, it is partially through her growing attachment to Curzon that she is able to find a sense of liberty – because she will not relinquish her connection to him. She slowly builds the strength to rebel against her mistress’s commands in order to make sure that Curzon is fed while he is in prison. And so although she was already a very strong, mature girl, she grows into an even more capable young woman at the end of the novel – she no longer hesitates and waits for her mother’s guidance, and is instead able to make decisions and take action on her own.
All in all, this is a complex story (of which I haven’t actually revealed too much) with a richly developed main character that I would recommend to all readers. While I have complained several times recently about other historical fiction novels that contain ideas and attitudes that are too modern for their setting, Chains is accurate (as far as I can tell) and unobtrusive in its language, interesting in both its story and its engagement with historical events, and just generally very well-written. There is a lot of tension throughout the novel as Isabel must deal with continual loss and abuse, combined with the hope that she will find a way to obtain freedom for her sister and herself, and while I’m not sure whether or not this novel would appeal to everyone, I feel fairly confident stating that Chains is so well-written that even many (if not all) readers who are not generally excited about historical fiction will appreciate this novel.
This is the last post that officially participates in my Women's History Month Reading Challenge. Don't worry, though, I plan on continuing to periodically read and review the other works of historical fiction featuring a female character that I picked up during March. I also plan on reading and reviewing Laurie Halse Anderson's sequel to Chains, entitled Forge, so keep an eye out for that...