Thursday, December 25, 2008

Chains of freedom

There has been a tremendous (well, for Oregon) amount of snow here for the past ten days; the library was last open on Friday, December 19 and I am at that point where to do much of anything sounds so terribly exhausting that I sigh and turn over another page of the umpteenth book I'm reading. I'm truly not bored, but admit to being powerfully unmotivated; which is why I can't seem to muster up much interest in blogging about Chains, which I finished a week ago. Or about anything else for that matter. Chains is Laurie Halse Anderson's historical novel about a young slave in Revolutionary New York. (I'm sure she is deeply tired of hearing that it's Octavian Nothing for less sophisticated readers.)

Chains is the story (or the beginning of the story) of Isabel, a young African American girl who has just buried her mistress in Newport, Rhode Island. Isabel believes that her late mistress's will has freed her and her younger sister, Ruth; but instead the girls are sold to a couple on their way home to New York City. The couple, the Lockwoods, are Loyalists -- supporters of the English crown -- and in the few weeks before the Declaration of Independence is signed in Philadelphia they believe that it is safe for them to live openly in New York. It is, of course, not safe for Isabel -- who is now at the mercy of two cruel adults. Mrs. Lockwood soon brands Isabel on the face with an "I" for insolence and sells her younger sister to some slaveholders on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

Isabel has found one friend, a slave named Curzon. Curzon encourages Isabel to spy on the Lockwoods and promises her that his Patriot master will help her if she does. Although Isabel does provide some information to the Patriots about the Lockwoods' activities, she discovers that neither Patriot nor Loyalist believes in the freedom of black people. Realizing that only she can make herself free, Isabel prepares to flee the Lockwoods and begin her search for her sister Ruth.

In between Isabel's branding and the time when she plans to escape from the Lockwoods the story just appeared to be marking time. Yes, events happened: Notably the Patriots' defeat at Fort Washington and their imprisonment in a dreadful prison near the battery. Curzon is among the prisoners and Isabel's actions save his life. But there was no tension in this part of the book -- it just felt like a series of episodes where Isabel crept off to the prison and came back to do her work in the house. The whole spying plot disappeared completely. It was kind of a drag. The tension and excitement picked right up at the end, where Isabel makes her escape ... with Curzon. The ending wasn't one ... clearly we are in for more of Isabel's story.

The book in my library catalog has the subtitle Seeds of America (which to me makes a connection to those Dear America books ... and that is not a good thing), which is nowhere on the cover or anywhere on the audiobook, so I'm not sure what that means. Is Chains the series name? Or is Seeds of America? Does it matter? I like to know these things.

Chains is narrated by Madisun Leigh, who reads Isabel with compassion and authenticity. She doesn't shy away from the deeper emotions -- and her reading of Isabel's branding, the loss of Ruth, and Isabel's realization that she is alone is powerfully moving. I think the story's impact is much greater by hearing, rather than reading it. Leigh doesn't try very hard to create the other characters -- there aren't any class or racial distinctions and the British don't sound very British. I'm not sure this detracts from the overall story, but I would have liked to hear some other characters.

What I did find intrusive was the chapter headings -- each of which was a day of the week and a date, followed by an often lengthy quote from primary sources that may (or may not) relate to the events of the chapter. Repitition like this can be a tiresome format in audio. What I wanted though, was a few moments to think about the quote, but alas, there were no vocal cues to let us know that the quote was over (beyond the citation), and the story just plunged ahead. It became somewhat of a barrier to my enjoyment of the book.

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