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I recently finished reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains with my 7th graders, a book about a teenage slave girl fighting to gain her own freedom at the same time the country was embroiled in the American Revolution. Liked most books that are required reading, especially historical fiction, it feel far outside the norm of the fiction I typically seek out—experimental horror by writers such as Robert Coover and Brian Evenson. Yet it easily qualifies as one of my favorite books, which goes to show that we should never discount something—a book, a movie, a band—just because it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of our usual preferences. Any work of art has the potential to transform.
First of all, Anderson is a fantastic stylist who packs evocative sensory details into every single scene: “Tongues of fog oozed across the water and curled around the bits of ice that floated past.” She weaves extended metaphors throughout the novel—bees, ashes, chains—which both act as a connective tissue binding us to the protagonist (Isabel) and also take on a slightly different nuance each time. The book is not without humor, either. At one point, Isabel’s master, a regular Cruella de Vil, pretends not to notice when her mouse hair eyebrow (supposedly a high fashion of the time) falls into her bread pudding.
What also resonated with me was the theme of moral duality. For instance, how do we explain why a nation fighting for its freedom can be indifferent to an individual’s freedom? How do we balance self-preservation (not necessarily life or death scenarios but financial, career, mental/physical health, etc.) with obligations to others? When should we put aside our own needs to help someone else, and when should we recognize that others are putting inappropriate or unrealistic demands on us and set boundaries to protect ourselves? These moral dilemmas—choosing between the “right” thing to do and the thing we need to do in the moment—are grappled with in surprising and unexpected ways throughout the book. We learn that there’s not always one answer—we must trust our instincts and let our inner compass guide us to the correct decision.
What books have you read that tackled big questions in a complex way?