Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I recently finished reading Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's the story of a slave girl (Isabel) during the British occupation of New York City in the Revolutionary War. While I learned something about that historical event, the main thing I'm taking away from this book is an increased appreciation for the injustice of slavery.

The story indirectly described the suffering the rebels experienced during the occupation (I say indirectly because Isabel's owners were British sympathizers and therefore were given preference when it came to getting food. They are even able to have some elaborate parties.). Isabel also ends up taking food scraps to the American prisoners of war, and the description of the conditions in the prison is almost uncomfortably vivid. It's not the first time I've read about those kinds of conditions (The Heretic's Daughter and Forged in the Fire, for example, had pretty vivid prison scenes). What makes it different this time is that the main characters in Chains are slaves, and that adds a whole new dimension to their suffering.

Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are sold early in the book to a selfish, cruel woman and her husband, who take the sisters to New York City. Throughout the book, Isabel is trying to find a way to get away from Madaam. On top of all the work Isabel is expected to do, Madaam hits Isabel with a riding crop, constantly insults her, separates her from her sister, and even has her branded with an "I" for "insolence." That's all bad enough, but what really brought the injustice home to me was that Madaam wouldn't even allow Isabel her identity. Shortly after arriving in New York, Madaam renames Isabel "Sal," even though that's not who Isabel wanted to be. I don't know why that bothered me more than the branding. (spoiler) Actually, I decided as soon as she was branded that the "I" should stand for "Isabel" instead of "insolence"; it took Isabel nearly to the end of the book to come to that conclusion herself.

The fact that all this cruelty is set against the struggle for the patriots to free themselves from British "oppression" is ironic. At least a couple of times, Isabel appeals to people who are engaged in this struggle for freedom and they refuse to help her; freedom is not for the slaves. There's also a sad reality in the way Curzon (Isabel's friend) is treated in the prison. He was captured fighting for the rebels and taken as a prisoner of war along with all the free white men. However, even though he was actively fighting for their cause, the other prisoners still place Curzon in a lower position. They steal his blanket and they take the lion's share of the food - even when Isabel has brought it for him.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, which means there will probably be a lot of discussions about slavery. Sometimes I think it's easy to intellectualize what slavery was about. Chains takes slavery out of the intellectual realm and makes the reader see and feel what it must have been like to be owned, body and soul, by another person and how hard it would be to escape that situation.

Let's add Laurie Halse Anderson to that list of people I want to study to be a better writer....

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