Chains: Seeds of America

Chains: Seeds of America 

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Publishing Info: New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2008

ISBN: HC-9781416905851


Pages: 316

Ages: Grades 6-10

Annotation:After being sold to a cruel couple in New York City, a slave named Isabel spies for the rebels during the Revolutionary War.

Summary: As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight...for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom. 

Book Talk:

Isabel Finch thought she was getting her freedom upon the death of her master, as indicated in his will. Afraid not. Not when a man grabs her and sells her and her five year old sister Ruth to the Locktons. "Madam," as Anne Lockton insists she be called, took the liberty of renaming Isabel "Sal."

Ruth, tortured by fits of epilepsy, a brain tumor, or some similar affliction, is treated as an ornament to be seen and not heard. And when she becomes too much trouble, Isabel must hide her in the basement. One day she disappears, and Isabel rages and runs away; Madam takes the reins and instructs the judge on which punishment she prefers to inflict. Madam elects to sear an "I" for Insolence into Isabel's cheek.

However Isabel has a secret skill...she can read. And with her position in Madam's house, this skill has just become very valuable. With the American Revolutionary War fast approaching, and Madam's husband embroiled in the plans of the British, does Isabel dare to seek payback for her and her sister's treatment, and become...a spy?

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

  • Slavery--Juvenile fiction
  • African Americans--Juvenile fiction
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Juvenile fiction
  • Spy Stories
  • Historical fiction

Selected Reviews & Awards:
Booklist Reviews, November 2008
Kirkus Reviews, September 2008, (starred)
Publishers Weekly Reviews, September 2008, (starred)
School Library Journal, October 2008
VOYA Reviews, October 2008

National Book Awards, 2008 (nominee)
Carnegie Medal, 2010
Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year, 2008
Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, 2009 (winner)

Discussion Questions:
  1. Describe the life of slaves in the American colonies in the 1700s. Discuss the difference between a servant and a slave. How did Miss Mary Finch's view of slavery differ from that of most slave owners? Why does Mr. Robert accuse Isabel of lying when she tells him that she read Miss Mary's will? Explain why Pastor Weeks thinks that teaching a slave to read only "leads to trouble."
  2. Mr. Robert collects Isabel and Ruth on the day of Miss Mary's funeral. Why aren't the girls allowed to take personal items with them? Explain the symbolism of the seeds that Isabel hides in her pocket. She plants the seeds, and one day finds that the plants have died. What do the dead plants represent? There is another plant metaphor in the novel. Explain what the mayor of New York means when he compares the rebels to vines.
  3. Role models may be found in real life and in stories. How are Isabel's momma and Queen Esther, from the Bible, her role models for bravery? Discuss the connection between bravery, courage, and fear. What is Isabel's first act of bravery? Discuss her most fearful moments. How is her bravery and courage fueled by her fears? How does she become bolder and braver as the novel develops?
  4. The American Revolution was about freedom and liberty. Mr. Lockton, a Loyalist, thinks that freedom and liberty has many meanings. Define freedom from his point of view. How might the Patriots define freedom and liberty? Isabel has lived her entire life in bondage, but dreams of freedom. What does freedom look like in Isabel's mind?
  5. Discuss why Curzon thinks that Isabel will be a good spy. At what point does she accept his offer? Isabel feels betrayed by Curzon. How is Curzon betrayed by Colonel Regan? At what point does Isabel understand that Curzon's dream of freedom is the same as hers? How does this realization help her forgive him? At the beginning of the novel, Isabel needs Curzon. How does he need her at the end of the novel?
  6. Isabel encounters a woman in the street singing "Yankee Doodle," and realizes that the woman is a messenger. What is the message? Colonel Regan gives Isabel the code wordad astrato use when entering the rebel camp. The word means "to the stars" in Latin. Why is this an appropriate code word for the rebels? How does this word foreshadow Isabel and Curzon's ultimate escape to freedom at the end of the novel?
  7. The mayor of New York, a Loyalist, says, "The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head." Who is the beast? Who is the head? Why is Lockton so adamantly opposed to the mayor's proposal?
  8. Isabel says, "Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at me face, my kerchief, my shirt neatly tucked into my skirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel." What is the lion inside of Isabel? What does Lady Seymour see in Isabel that Madam Lockton doesn't see? How does the "lamb" in Lady Seymour help the "lion" inside of Isabel escape?
  9. Explain the following metaphor: "Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul." What precipitates such sadness in Isabel? How does the hive grow bigger before Isabel learns to destroy it?
  10. The old man that Isabel calls Grandfather says, "Everything that stands between you and freedom is the river Jordan." He assures her that she will find it if she looks hard enough. What is the figurative river Jordan in the novel? Discuss all of the tributaries that feed into Isabel's river Jordan.
  11. The bookseller gives Isabel a copy ofCommon Senseby Thomas Paine. He advises her that the words are dangerous, and that she should commit them to memory. At what point does she understand Paine's words? How does the book give her courage?
  12. What does Isabel mean when she says, "I was chained between two nations"? There are several references to chains throughout the novel. How is the word "chain" used as an antonym to the word "freedom"?
Discussion questions retrieved from Scholastic's Discussion Guide

Related Websites: 

Chains Common Core Teacher's Guide:

Library of Congress American Revolutionary War Collections:

Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor the the Nation: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson, 2010
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, 2006
Finishing Becca: A Story About Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold by Ann Rinaldi, 1994
Jefferson's Sons: A Founding Father's Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2011
Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution by Avi, 2012
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen, 2010

Selected Other Works By the Author: 
The Impossible Knife of Memory, 2014
Forge (sequel to Chains), 2010
Wintergirls, 2009
Twisted, 2007
Prom, 2005
Speak, 2004
Catalyst, 2002
Fever, 1793, 2000

About the Author:

Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous national and state awards, as well as international recognition. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Laurie was honored with the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature…”. Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes.