CHAINS and FORGE: Historical Novels that Pass the Student-Interest Test

The English and social studies curricula at my school are integrated, so I end up teaching a lot of historical fiction.  It isn’t always easy to find a book that’s firmly grounded in a historical time and place and well-written and engaging for middle school readers.  But Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains and Forge are all three of those things.

My students filled out reading and writing surveys at the end of last week, and I was struck by how many seventh and eighth graders chose Chains or Forge as the best book they’d read for school in the past year and listed Laurie Halse Anderson among their favorite authors.  So I got to thinking about what makes these books so good.

In Chains, Isabel, an eleven-year-old slave, is sold with her younger sister Ruth to a Loyalist family in New York City at the beginning of the American Revolution. Anderson uses restraint at the beginning of the novel, trusting young readers to make inferences as they come to understand Isabel’s circumstances.  And the novel balances Revolutionary War history with Isabel’s personal struggles to win her freedom and protect Ruth.  Each chapter starts with a quote from a relevant historical document, and Isabel is a feisty, likable heroine in a compelling, often terrifying situation. Chapters end on cliff-hangers, and Isabel’s first-person voice is full of personality.  Her narration is packed with similes and metaphors that convey her intense emotions (she writes of bees buzzing in her head and ashes inside her) and distinctive, old-fashioned word choice, such as “confuddled” and “remembery.”

Forge, the sequel to Chains, follows Isabel’s friend Curzon, an escaped slave who has been promised freedom, as he links up with the Patriot army before the difficult winter at Valley Forge. As she does in Chains, Anderson opens each chapter with a quote from a letter or another historical document, and she weaves in old-fashioned language, especially through colorful insults that feel true to the time period (and are a lot of fun to read).  Curzon is an interesting protagonist because he is hotheaded, self-protective, and conflicted in his feelings towards Isabel.  He develops satisfying friendships with some of his white fellow soldiers, and he comes across as vulnerable and endearing through his relationships with other characters.

These two novels are well researched, and the historical details are woven in beautifully.  But I think it’s Curzon and Isabel—their intense desires, their vulnerability, their affection for other people, their morality, and the unbelievable unfairness of the situations they face—that make these two historical novels so outstanding.  Readers can’t help but care and worry for these protagonists, and Laurie Halse Anderson manages to give Curzon and Isabel agency and let them take action without minimizing the oppression and horrors that slaves faced.

I recommend both novels to young readers as well as adults and would love to know other examples of captivating historical novels!

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