83 pages 2 hours read

Laurie Halse Anderson


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide


Laurie Halse Anderson's middle-grade novel Chains (2008), a National Book Award finalist and Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award winner, is the first installment in her Seeds of America series. The historical fiction, set in 18th-century New York City, follows a young Black girl on her journey to escape slavery while the sparks of the colonists’ rebellion gradually ignite the American Revolution. The protagonist, 13-year-old Isabel Finch, narrates her search for identity while caring for her sister and living at the estate of a despotic slave holder. When Isabel reluctantly becomes a spy for the Continental Army, she faces danger at every turn. With her new friend Curzon and courage summoned from her ancestors, she traverses the upheaval of war as the sisters’ future hangs in the balance. The author anchors her narrative in history, beginning each chapter with an epigraph selected from historical documents, poetry, and letters from the era. The novel explores the importance of family, the nature of freedom, and the courage needed for pursuing that freedom.

Plot Summary

The novel is set in 1770s America before the Revolutionary War, and 13-year-old Isabel, the Black protagonist, is enslaved. The novel opens in a Rhode Island cemetery at the funeral of Mary Finch, Isabel’s owner. With Mary’s death, her greedy nephew Robert seizes control of all her assets, including Isabel and her sister, Ruth, who has an intellectual disability. Caring neither for their well-being nor that Mary freed the sisters in her will, he sells them to the first eligible buyer he finds: Elihu and Anne Lockton, a wealthy couple, live in New York City, though they also own a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. Isabel and Ruth are brought to the Locktons’ home as house slaves and serve alongside Becky Berry, their housekeeper, who is well-attuned to Madam Lockton’s fiery temper and whose main goal is to keep the peace.

Before even arriving at the Locktons’ house, however, Isabel is given her first job: to collect water at the Tea Water Pump. A boy named Curzon, enslaved by a man named Officer Bellingham, takes her there. Wiser to the ways of the city and the rising revolutionary rebellion, Curzon becomes her friend and a key ally in surviving her new life in New York. After Isabel has lived for some time with the Locktons, Curzon offers her a job as a spy for the American revolutionaries, asking her to secretly observe the Locktons, who are suspected Loyalists (Loyalists, or Tories, were the American colonists who were loyal to Britain, unlike the revolutionists. The Locktons are indeed Loyalists, though they try to hide it). Isabel agrees—on the condition that one of the American Continental soldiers, Colonel Regan, helps free her and Ruth from slavery and return them to Rhode Island. Isabel naively thinks she can bargain for her freedom, but she soon learns her deliverance will prove much more complex and painful than she envisioned.

The Locktons treat Isabel and Ruth poorly, and when Ruth’s epilepsy is revealed in a violent seizure, Madam Lockton vows to remove Ruth from her home, fearing she is possessed by a demon. Isabel spends her days keeping Ruth quiet and hidden from Madam Lockton while also tending to her chores and listening for information to share with Curzon.

The war begins as the colonists formally declare their independence. British ships fill the New York City harbor, and the sound of cannon fire becomes a daily occurrence. When Isabel uncovers the Locktons’ involvement in a plot to bribe colonists and assassinate George Washington, she boldly approaches Colonel Regan and demands her and Ruth’s freedom in return for the information. Regan promises to help. However, Master Lockton, because he is a Loyalist and fears capture by the American Army, flees to London. Shortly afterward, Madam Lockton tells Isabel that she sold Ruth away to a family in Nevis, West Indies. Isabel angrily confronts Madam and attempts to escape, fleeing to Regan at the Battery. Despite his earlier promise to help her, Regan fails to do so; Isabel attempts to run but is caught, savagely beaten, and left to await trial in prison. Her punishment, chosen by Madam Lockton, is to be branded on her face with the letter “I” for “insolence.” After the branding, Isabel develops a fever—and were it not for intervention from Curzon and kindness from Master Lockton’s aunt, Lady Seymour, Isabel would have perished from illness and shock. Lady Seymour nurses her back to health but sends her back to the Locktons.

As the war rages and Continental casualties mount, Isabel sinks into a depression. The city burns with fire and seethes with pestilence. Without Ruth near, Isabel languishes. When Lady Seymour becomes ill, Isabel is sent to work at her home. Curzon has courageously fought in the war’s first battles but is captured and held as a prisoner of war. Isabel secretly takes food to him each night and sometimes passes messages to the prisoners from soldiers on the outside of the prison.

Madam Lockton discovers Isabel’s secret message deliveries, and Madam severely beats Isabel. She also reveals to Isabel that she did not sell Ruth; she merely sent her south to their Charleston plantation. Isabel, emboldened and no longer afraid of her master, steals a pass (historically, enslaved people could only travel beyond their estates if they had written passes), forges her new name (“Isabel Gardner”), and sets out to free Ruth. She first rescues Curzon from the prison and rows them across the harbor where they will begin the next part of their journey as escaped freedom seekers.

The novel is both an action adventure and a coming-of-age story as Isabel tries to find her footing on the uneven ground of a world in chaos. The narrative brings the reader an unseen side of the American Revolution in telling the story of one girl’s battle for personal liberty set against the historical backdrop of the colonies’ fight for independence.