Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Chains. (4 stars out of 4)--

These are heady times. A paradigm shift in the nature of how we conduct business, pleasure, entertainment, and education is occurring before our eyes. We have elected an African-American for president, an event of no small magnitude, but we may be throwing him to the wolves: social security and Medicare are in jeopardy of collapse, companies are folding left and right, we may not have American cars next year, and governors are selling senate seats to the highest bidder. To add insult to injury, the Internet ensures that we all have the bad news instantly, by twitter, blog, and IM. Laurie Halse Anderson, author of modern classic Speak, understands the weight of these times, so like her namesake, M.T. Anderson (Octavian Nothing books), she has written a powerful new novel, Chains, that uses 1776 Colonial America as the crucible in which she burns away our leaders’ rhetoric to reveal the rotten core of morality that is our unfortunate, but unavoidable, legacy. Just as President-elect Obama’s election illustrates not only the progress we have made as a people but also the healing, sensitivity, and empathy for which all Americans still should strive, so Ms. Anderson’s brutally honest and direct approach serves to show that, although the colonial fight for liberty was noble, the human cost to African-Americans was astronomical, not only in lost and broken lives, but in whites’ betrayal of every human right they were fighting the British to secure.
When Miss Mary Finch of Tew, Rhode Island passes, her slave Isabel believes she and her epileptic sister Ruth have been set free by Miss Finch’s will: “I spoke slowly, saying the words I had practiced in my head . . . ‘Ruth and me are free, Pastor. Miss Finch freed us in her will. Momma, too, if she had lived’” (9). However, even the local pastor refuses to confirm and support their story, and the girls are sold to the Locktons, a loyalist family from New York, where they are transported. Once there, Isabel, whose name is changed to Sal Lockton by her harsh mistress, is thrust into the center of the battle for independence. She meets another slave named Curzon who asks her to spy for the Patriots. At first, Isabel refuses, claiming that even if she would risk her life and be a spy, no one will ever reveal anything to her anyway. Curzon is a little more worldly and knows better: “‘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’” (41). As the war progresses, Isabel begins to appreciate Curzon’s passion for the Patriots, even without the promise of freedom. When she finds herself in her master’s library with plotting Loyalists exchanging money, maps, and plans, she realizes Curzon was right: “I walked in. The other men did not look my way. I was invisible to them until they needed something” (61). As Isabel gradually commits to a side and a course of action, she must walk a delicate tightrope between staying true to herself, believing in something larger than herself, protecting her sister, and avoiding her mistress’s cruelty, while always trying to prove her freedom.
I can imagine a meeting between Laurie Halse Anderson and M.T. Anderson, two of the most talented writers in YA literature, a few years ago at a fashionable, literary café: chatting about their upcoming projects over lattés, how shocking (or crafty!) it must have been when they discovered that they were both working on novels with sequels that feature African-American slave protagonists in the American Colonies of 1776 (M.T. Anderson’s outstanding Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, The Pox Party, was reviewed in this column, and its solid sequel, Kingdom on the Waves, was released in November 2008). Thank goodness that the authors in question are both lyrical innovators who have written two completely different (and similar) novels that highlight the dark underbelly of American hypocrisy: our celebrated release from England freed less than half of all Americans, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness applied originally and exclusively to white males. Also, the primary sources cited at the beginning of each fast-paced chapter complement the narrative well, and shed additional insight onto both the author’s tone and the overall themes of Chains. This may be the most exciting, politically-charged era in our lives; it is an excellent time to reflect on where we have been and how much work is still left to make the founders’ words as true as they envisioned them, not as they practiced them.


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