Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A frozen furnace

Two years ago, I listened to Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, and when I went back recently to review my thoughts about it, I was surprised at how cranky I was. Some of the things that seemed to bother me immensely are present in the sequel to Chains, Forge, where they didn't bother me a bit. I can only excuse myself by saying that at that point in 2008, I was wrapping up my job as chair of Amazing Audiobooks and my enthusiasm for anything related to audiobooks was on a temporary wane.

I enjoyed Forge, which continues the story of Isabel and Curzon, two black Americans struggling for another kind of freedom at the beginning of the American Revolution. Curzon, whose master said that if he enlisted in Continental army he -- his master -- would set him free, has escaped a dreadful prison with the help of Isabel, who has also run from her mistress. Curzon tells us early in Forge that he and Isabel quarrelled and separated shortly after their flight because Isabel insisted on heading south to search for her younger sister. Curzon finds himself accidently mustered back into the army and participates in the great, unexpected Colonial victory at Saratoga in 1777. For safety's sake, he decides to stay with the army as it marches to its winter headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Along with Curzon, we endure the horrific conditions of starvation, cold and disease that frigid winter.

As the winter ends, a delegation from the Continental Congress comes to Valley Forge to examine what happened to the army and learn how to prevent it from happening again. To Curzon's horror, a member of that delegation turns out to be the master from whom he ran away. And, that master has brought another slave with him, Curzon's friend Isabel. His and Isabel's roles are reversed now: It will be up to Curzon to free himself and Isabel.

Laurie Halse Anderson is a terrific writer -- her research is painstaking and she knows how to marry the fascinating information she unearths with a great story. In an effort to revitalize this dying (dead?) genre, Historical Fiction, she urges rebranding to Historical Thriller. Even though this sounds awkward to me (trying too hard?), as a lover of novels that take place during a historical time period -- who wishes to share that love with young readers -- I'll try to use the new term. And be sure: Forge is a thriller. From the battle of Saratoga through to Curzon's audacious exit from Valley Forge, the suspense is palpable. Of course, Anderson's got a terrific character in Curzon -- a proud, intelligent black man with one overriding goal -- freedom. He's more sympathetic than Isabel, whose singleminded aim of reuniting with her sister can make her more than a little annoying. And the things he does for her ...

Forge is narrated by Tim Cain (generally, I wouldn't link to Facebook, but it's nice to have a picture), who evidently has a lot of audiobooks to his name, but I've never heard him before. He has a rich, resonant speaking voice and a good range of character voices. Curzon is a character of many depths -- compliant black slave, proud brother-in-arms, tentative lover of Isabel, and a man terrified by the loss of his freedom -- and I hear all the shadings in Cain's interpretation. He stretches a little bit to portray the Marquis de Lafayette, but sounds comfortable voicing a Dutch slaveholder and his slaves (the parents of Sojourner Truth!).

[This latter fact I only found out upon obtaining a print copy of Forge as the author's Q&A-formatted appendix is disappointingly not included in the audiobook. I looked at the print version as I was in search of a map of Valley Forge and it did not disappoint. I love a map in a book!]

There is a "huh?" audiobook moment at the pronunciation of the name Curzon. Cain says "CORE-zun." This is eventually explained, but it does lead me to wonder why Anderson just didn't spell the name that way in the first place. I'm mildly curious (in other words, not curious enough) to hear how Curzon is pronounced in Chains.

The end of the print book also promises a third volume featuring Curzon and Isabel, Ashes. I'll be there, and one of the things that I'm wondering about -- aside from what Revolutionary War history they will wander into next -- is how Anderson will sustain the wonderful double and triple meanings of her book titles in this series.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrated by Tim Cain
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 7:45 (unabridged)

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