One of the most painful and difficult topics to discuss with young readers is the topic of slavery.
by Laurie Halse Anderson brings a historical narrative through the voice of the young protagonist, Isabel, during the days and weeks leading up to the nation’s independence.
The story is set in New York, after Isabel and Ruth were sold from Rhode Island. The very fact it is set in the upper east coast is fodder for much discussion when slavery is often portrayed as something that happened in the antebellum south before the Civil War.
Set in 1776 with the budding Revolutionary War and flurry of activity between the Patriots (Rebels) and the Loyalists (Torys, loyal to the King), this story invites the reader to tackle the tender topic without the graphic nature of enslavement that is in many adult historical novels.
The Hurston & Hughes Literary Circle recommends the book for late elmentary to early middle school (5-7) grade for the historical nature and the realistic characterizations. They were humored by Isabel’s descriptions of the Loyalists and the quandry many slaves felt being “chained between two nations.”
This story was read during the week leading to the 240th birthday of the United States of America and on the backdrop of continued racial discrimination in this country. Themes of freedom, liberty, and independence were discussed as we also read Frederick Douglass’ speech, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?
Just two days after this was read, two young African-American men were lynched, making the discussion of Washington, Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the place of the black man, woman, and child in this country, even more pertinent.
Middle and high school students are able to grasp these topics and in fact need to encounter the true history of this country and then engage in dialogue of what it means. The readers began a time line from 1619-2016 of Africans in the United States. The first 1607, however, going as far back as 1513, they found the Spanish in Florida and in 1542, they were in California. The beauty and pain of America is that it is a land made up of many peoples, first, the Indigeneous Tribes that inhabited these shores before the European quest sent them looking for more. Columbus was an agent of the Spanish crown when he got lost in 1492 and landed in the Bahamas, inhabited by the Taino Indians, like the other Caribbean islands. My own homeland, Haiti, was Ayiti before the Spanish landed on what is now the Dominican Republic, what they say was founded in 1496, and the French subsequently encompassing Haiti. The plight of peoples of color is complex and often uncomfortable, but as one mother stated, it is important for the children to know what the adults were not taught.
History is complicated, complex, and yet, commanding of attention and compelling of story. Chains included drama, adventure, and page-turning events from moment-to-moment with the young protagonist in a role of hero. Isabel and Curzon took on that role alternatively as spies and also as tenacious survivors, strategists, and skilled orators of their own stories.