Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Books #28 and 33 of 2012: "Chains" and "Forge" by Laurie Halse Anderson

Yesterday I finished reading my 33rd book of 2012, Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson.  It is the sequel to her book Chains, which I read last month.  Chains was one of the featured books in our local Teen Read Week 2011, and it's been on my "to read" list since then.

These books were very unlike anything I'd usually pick up.  They are meticulously researched historical fiction.  Set during the Revolutionary War, they tell the story of two slaves, Isabel and Curzon.  As America fights to gain its freedom, these two young slaves also struggle to gain their own.  When Chains begins, Isabel's mistress has just died.  The mistress freed Isabel and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, in her will.... but the soliciter has left town due to the war, and her next of kin denies any knowledge of that arrangement, and he sells the two girls to make a profit for himself.  Isabel and Ruth are relocated to New York with their new household.

In New York, Isabel meets Curzon, whose master signs him up to fight in the Revolutionary War in his place, promising Curzon freedom at the end of his enlistment.  Isabel's new master is loyal to the King of England, and Curzon tries to persuade Isabel to spy for the Americans, telling her that if she provides valuable information for them, the army generals can help her gain her freedom.  Both Isabel and Curzon are sorely disappointed, though.  Isabel does provide the rebels with information, but they do nothing for her in return.  Her mistress sends Ruth away, and Isabel tries to escape to find Ruth.  When Isabel is caught, her mistress brands her face as a punishment.  Meanwhile, the British defeat the Americans, and Curzon is imprisoned and nearly starved to death with the rest of his regiment.

Chains ends with Isabel's daring escape from her master and rescue of Curzon from the prison.  Forge picks up a few months later.  Curzon has re-enlisted in the army, and his regiment is sent to Valley Forge.  After months of nearly starving and nearly freezing with the rest of the troops, Curzon's old master reappears and forces him back into slavery, ignoring the promise that he made to free Curzon at the end of his previous enlistment.  Isabel has also been recaptured, and she is purchased by Curzon's master, who then fits her neck with an iron collar to keep her from running away again.  Again, the two plot to escape.

I don't read historical fiction (or actual history) very often, as it tends to be drier than the dystopian books I usually pick.  While it is true that I did not tear through either Chains or Forge  as fast as I do other books, I did find them to be very interesting.  Over and over again, I was hit by injustice of it all.  Both Isabel and Curzon were promised freedom within the law, and both were repeatedly oppressed.  I kept wanting to help them, but in reality, they had nowhere to turn.  At that time in history, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies, so even if they managed to escape, they still had nowhere to go.  There was nowhere that they could run and be safe, and no one that they could turn to for help.  Even those who sympathized with the slaves' situation could do little to help them because of the laws of the time.

I would highly recommend the Seeds of American trilogy (to be completed with the forthcoming Ashes, due to be published on Feburary 5, 2013) to anyone who is interested in history.  It would be a fantastic addition to the curriculum for a history class (or an interdisciplinary English class!), particularly at the middle school or freshman level.  The books have a question/answer session in the back, and Anderson provides plenty of references and recommendations for further research and reading.  Every chapter begins with a quote from a soldier, slave, or other historical figure from the Revolution.  These books bring both the American Revolution and American slavery into a context that teens will be able to relate to.  I don't know how many kids (or adults) would pick this trilogy up as a "pleasure read," but I would say that it's definitely worth it.

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