Laurie Halse Anderson

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Chains Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson has loved reading and writing since she was a young child, but she never envisioned herself becoming a writer. As a teenager, she participated in an exchange program and spent a year on a pig farm in Denmark. Upon her return to the U.S., Anderson attended community college and ultimately graduated from Georgetown University in 1984 with a degree in languages and linguistics. Following this, Anderson got a job as a journalist working for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She published her first novel in 1996 (Ndito Runs, about Kenyan Olympic marathon runners) but rose to fame in 1999 after publishing the young adult novel Speak. Speak, which is about a high school student who is sexually assaulted, is loosely autobiographical—Anderson later published a memoir, Shout, about the sexual violence she experienced as a high school student. Chains, and the other two novels in the Seeds of America Trilogy, have received major acclaim, with Chains winning the prestigious Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Anderson has been married twice; she is currently married to her high school sweetheart.
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Historical Context of Chains

Chains takes place during the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1775 and ended in 1783. By its conclusion, the 13 American Colonies had won independence from Great Britain and become the United States of America. In the novel, Isabel reads Thomas Paine’s influential political pamphlet Common Sense, which was published in 1776 and offered a moral argument for why the colonies must fight for independence from Britain. The Declaration of Independence also expressed high-minded ideals, such as the idea that “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But in Chains, enslaved people like Isabel and Curzon find that American Patriots are, on the whole, unwilling to extend the same freedom to enslaved Black people, who at the time made up about one-fifth of the colonies’ population. As Isabel notes in the novel, the British did free enslaved people in America—provided those people belonged to Patriots. The British hoped that this would decimate important parts of the American economy by depriving Patriots of the majority of their labor force. But any enslaved people who were owned by Loyalists were returned to their owners if they attempted to join the British. It wasn’t until the end of the American Civil War in 1865 that slavery ended in the United States.

Other Books Related to Chains

Chains is the first in the Seeds of America Trilogy; it’s followed by Forge and Ashes. It was Anderson’s second young adult historical fiction book; her first was Fever 1793, which is about the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793. As a story for young people about slavery, Chains is similar to Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen, which is intended for middle-grade readers and is about an enslaved man who teaches others to read, at great personal risk. Sharon Draper’s novel Copper Sun—about a young woman who is kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery in the American Colonies—is intended for older readers. Chains is also in good company when it comes to novels about spies during wartime. Avi’s novel Sophia’s War is about a young white girl who spies on the British during the Revolutionary War, while Behind Rebel Lines by Seymour Reit tells the story of a young woman who dresses as a man to spy on the Confederates during the American Civil War. Within the novel itself, Isabel reads Thomas Paine’s political pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated for American independence and was circulated widely in the colonies. She also reads Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Additionally, Isabel has heard of poet Phillis Wheatley, though she never gets to read her work. Wheatley was the first published Black poet in America (she published her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773). Ann Rinaldi’s novel Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons tells Phillis Wheatley’s story.
Key Facts about Chains
  • Full Title: Chains
  • When Written: 2007–2008
  • Where Written: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • When Published: 2008
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Rhode Island and New York, 1776–1777
  • Climax: Having discovered that Ruth is actually on the Lockton plantation in Charleston, Isabel runs away and rescues Curzon from prison.
  • Antagonist: Madam Lockton is Isabel’s biggest foe, but most of the novel’s white characters are antagonists in some way.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Chains

Epilepsy. Epilepsy, which Ruth suffers from in the novel, was first recorded thousands of years ago. For millennia, it was thought that seizures were a sign that someone was possessed, which led to the kind of superstitions that Madam expresses in the novel (such as that Ruth’s mere presence will curdle milk). Today, epilepsy is understood as a medical condition rather than a spiritual affliction, and there are a variety of treatments available. 

How Fashionable. As Isabel observes in the novel, bushy eyebrows were in fashion during the 1700s—but due to the widespread use of lead-based face makeup, which can cause hair to fall out, many women didn’t naturally have full eyebrows. It’s unclear exactly how common mouse-skin false eyebrows were, but they did exist as an alternative to drawing on brows. Satirical poetry from the day, though, does suggest it was common for the mouse-skin eyebrows to fall off the wearer’s face (as Madam’s do in the novel).