This month’s historical fiction novel for my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2009 award winner, Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson.
Chains begins in the spring of 1776, when Isabel and her younger sister, Ruth, are sold to a New York couple posing as Patriots. Isabel’s main goals are to take care of her sister and to not anger her new masters. However, as the war between the Patriots and British envelopes New York, Isabel begins to see the larger issues of freedom and determines to be free of all her chains, physical and otherwise.
Slaves caught in the middle–In the novel, as well as in the appendix, Anderson shows the fate and dilemmas of the black slaves during the Revolutionary War. Black men fought on both sides of the war. Some were slaves who served their soldier owners, some were slaves serving in place of their owners, some were freedmen, and some were runaways.
Some chose to fight on the side of the Patriots, believing that once the colonists were free from Britain, the Patriots would free the slaves. Some chose to fight on the side of the British because the British promised freedom.
The thing I didn’t know was that when the British promised freedom to runaway slaves, it was only to slaves of Patriots, not Loyalists. In fact, they would return runaway slaves to Loyalists.
Anderson points out that neither the Americans nor the British offered freedom to slaves because of opposition to slavery. Any promises of freedom, by either side, was war-time strategy.
Rising stakes–Often writers like their characters so much, they have trouble making trouble for their characters. But, if there isn’t enough conflict, there won’t be a story.
Anderson did a great job making things tough, and tougher, for Isabel. I’ll try not to give away any spoilers, but Isabel starts off as a slave with no control over her future. This is ground-level conflict. Then Anderson gives Isabel a young sister who is helpless without her. So, now, the conflict doesn’t just involve Isabel, but also someone she loves.
Then the two girls are sold to a cruel couple. This couple is pretending to be Patriots in Patriot-held New York. However, not only are they Loyalists, but they are plotting against George Washington. Isabel begins to spy for the Patriots, then the British take control of New York. Each point of conflict gets bigger and has greater stakes, or consequences, for Isabel or people she cares about.
Anderson makes things worse for Isabel, including having Isabel experience torture and near death. Why do this? The increasing conflict/stakes builds tension in the readers and keeps them reading the story. If the worst that can happen isn’t very bad, or if it happens right away in the book, readers will lose interest.
For more information:
Join me, July 28, for my next challenge book, the 1989 Scott O’Dell Award winner, The Honorable Prison by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins.
What other kids books deal with slavery during the American Revolutionary War? What children’s authors do you admire for making things increasingly tough for their characters?