Seeds of America trilogy: Chains, Forge, and Ashes

by Laurie Halse Anderson

Atheneum, 2008-2016

I’m going to come right out and confess it: the Revolutionary War has never held much interest for me. In fact, American history as a whole and the Colonial period in particular have never quite captured my imagination the way other subjects have.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been something of an Anglophile, and secretly regretted that we ever separated from the mother country. Or maybe it’s because almost every history class in grade school started with the Colonial period and the Revolution, so that I got saturated with the subject matter and became hungry for something (anything) else to learn.

But when Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains first came out, I had to read it. The topic of slavery and race relations is the one part of American history I find consistently fascinating, and here was a book that promised to address a complicated question that had always bothered me: what about the hypocrisy of pontificating and fighting for freedom while keeping an entire class of people enslaved?

As I looked up information on Chains, however, I learned that it was the first book in a planned trilogy. Once I get started on a series, I prefer to read the whole thing in one go. Stopping partway through bothers me so much that I will literally lie awake at night wondering what the next book holds. So I resolved to wait until the entire trilogy had been published.

I didn’t realize I would have to wait eight years.

When the final book at last hit the shelves, I was thrilled. I checked out all three at once and read them in a row, and it was entirely worth the wait. Seeds of America tells the story of Isabel and her on-again-off-again friend Curzon, both slaves. In Chains, Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist family living in New York just as the Revolution begins. There, they meet Curzon, whose owner is a leading Patriot, and are caught up in some of the major events of the period. In Forge, the second book, Curzon takes center stage as a young soldier at Valley Forge. There, he reunites with Isabel, and they search for a way to obtain freedom once and for all. Ashes concludes their story as they search for Ruth (who was separated from Isabel in Chains) and ultimately end up at Yorktown, where they participate in the decisive battle of the war.

Halse Anderson’s writing is incredible – I wasn’t surprised to find that Chains was a National Book Award finalist and Scott O’Dell Award winner. She gives clear voice to each character and immerses the story in the narrator’s viewpoint. Her treatment of the great hypocrisy of our history is raw, honest, and human. Isabel, with her instinct for self-preservation and ambivalence toward the war, is one of the most real and relatable heroines I’ve ever encountered.

And it’s Isabel’s story – more specifically, her development as a person over the five years the series encompasses – that takes the book from well-written to inspiring. It’s nothing short of miraculous that she manages to survive her owners’ cruelty and the horrors of Valley Forge and the Yorktown siege with her dignity and humanity intact. But it’s believable, too, because we are privy to her internal struggle. We agonize with her over the question of loyalty, the real meaning of freedom, and the truest course of action.

Isabel is incredibly smart and self-reflective. Her strength – both physically and mentally – and her resolve are amazing. And her failures and missteps, and what she learns from them, are thought-provoking. The series not only prods readers to take a brutally honest look at our racial history, it shows us what can happen when people rise above their circumstances and refuse to sell their souls along with their bodies.

The easy thing would be to hold this series out as an inspiring read for girls of color, but that would be very shortsighted. Everyone needs to learn this story – the story of slavery and its relationship to our nation’s founding – and everyone can learn from Isabel and her courage.

 

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