Chains

by

Laurie Halse Anderson

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Chains: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Since Momma always said that the best time to talk to ghosts is just before sunrise, Isabel asks if she might run ahead of the wagon. Pastor Weeks is driving with Old Ben, an enslaved person he owns, next to him. Isabel’s little sister, Ruth (who has a “peculiar manner of being”) sits next to the coffin that holds Miss Mary Finch, and Mr. Robert Finch rides behind. When Pastor Weeks explains to Mr. Finch that Isabel has family buried nearby and would like to visit their graves, Mr. Robert’s face screws up. He arrived a few weeks ago to visit his aunt, Miss Finch—and moved in when he heard her wet cough. He stole her money before her body was even cold and is now improperly hurrying her burial along. But he gives his permission for Isabel to run ahead.
Since Isabel has to ask permission to visit her own mother’s grave, this establishes her as being enslaved like Old Ben—which means she doesn’t have the power to dictate anything about her life. The fact that Mr. Robert seems so annoyed that Isabel wants to visit Momma’s grave marks him as uncompassionate and cruel, especially given how he also treated his aunt in her final days. He’s greedy and selfish—and since Isabel is enslaved and therefore considered valuable property, this could mean that he poses a danger to her.
Themes
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon
Isabel hurries past the white graveyard to the Black graveyard, where she picks a few violets. Momma’s grave is marked by a big stone and a wooden cross; she died a year ago of smallpox. The disease left Isabel and Ruth covered in scars. Kneeling by the grave, Isabel asks Momma to cross over for a bit, but she doesn’t see Momma’s kerchief appear in the mist. As Isabel begs Momma to visit her, the wagon carrying Miss Finch reaches the graveyard gate.
Though Momma is deceased, Isabel hasn’t stopped relying on Momma’s ghost for advice and protection. Describing Isabel begging Momma to visit while the wagon approaches the graveyard gate adds tension—Isabel apparently doesn’t have much time to make her plea.
Themes
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon
Nothing happens. Maybe Momma is angry because Isabel couldn’t bury her properly, but Isabel didn’t know what to do—she only said some prayers. As the men unload Miss Finch’s coffin, Isabel leaves an offering of an oatcake smeared in honey. She turns and races back to the wagon when Mr. Robert shouts for her. He grabs her arm roughly and tells her to “go pray for her that owned you.”
As Isabel describes possibly burying Momma wrong, it’s clear that being enslaved has cut Isabel off from old traditions. Slaveholders often forced enslaved people to convert to Christianity to purposefully distance them from tribal traditions, which seems to be what’s happened here. And Mr. Robert makes it clear that he thinks Isabel’s focus should be on her former owner—not her own family.
Themes
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon