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 ALA and state awards. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Chains also received the 2009 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and Laurie was chosen for the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award. Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes. You can follow her adventures on Twitter, http://twitter.com/halseanderson, and on her blog, http://halseanderson.livejournal.com/.
...we have in common With all other men a naturel right to our freedoms without Being depriv'd of them by our fellllow men.... we were unjustly dragged by the cruel hand of power from our dearest friends and sum of us stolen...and Brought hither to be made slaves for Life in a Christstian land Thus are we deprived of every thing that hath a tendency to make life even tolerable...
-- Petition for freedom from a group of slaves to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage, His Majesty's Council, and the House of Representntatives, 25 May 1774
The days started early in the Lockton kitchen. Since Becky lived in a boardinghouse on Oliver Street, it fell to me to wake first and build up the fire. She did the proper cooking, and I did near everything else, like washing pots and plates and beating eggs till my arms fell off for Madam's almond jumbles and plum cakes with icing. If not in the kitchen, I was removing colonies of spiders, polishing tables and chairs, or sweeping up a mountain of dust. I saved the cobwebs, twisting them around a rag and storing them by our pallet in the cellar.
Cobwebs were handy when a person had a bloody cut.
Madam complained every time she saw me: I left a streak of wax on the tabletop. I tracked in mud. I faced a china dog toward the door after I dusted it, which would cause the family's luck to run out. At the end of every scolding, I cast down my eyes and said, "Yes, Madam."
I kept careful track of her the same way as I used to mind the neighbor's bull when I took the milk cows out to pasture. She had not hit me again, but always seemed on the edge of it.
Mostly Madam slept late, wrote letters, and picked out melodies on a badly tuned spinet. A few times, she and her husband conversated fast and quiet about Mr. Washington and when the King's ships would arrive for the invasion. They argued fierce on Thursday night. Lockton shouted and called Madam rude names before storming out of the house, the front door crashing behind him.
Ivowed not to cross neither of them.
Madam went to bed early that night, so we did too. Ruth snuggled next to me and fell asleep quick. I lay awake, praying hard but gaining little comfort.
I was lost. I knew that we were in the cellar of a house on Wall Street, owned by the Locktons, in the city of New York, but it was like looking at a knot, knowing it was a knot, but not knowing how to untie it. I had no map for this life.
I lay awake and stared into the darkness.
Madam called for tea in her bedchamber the next morning and sent for Ruth, who was pumping the butter churn with vigor.
"Why would she need Ruth?" I asked as I wiped my sister's hands and face with a damp rag.
"Why does she do anything?" Becky asked. "I'm to climb to the attic to fetch the cast-off clothing in an old trunk. Maybe she'll set the little one to rip out the stitches so the dressmaker can use the fabric. This best be the last of the day's fanciful notions. My knees don't like all this upping and downing of the stairs."
Ruth stayed in Madam's chamber for hours. I spilled the fireplace ashes on the kitchen floor, then kicked over the bucket of wash water I brought in to clean up the mess. I stubbed my toe and near cut off my finger whilst peeling an old, tough turnip.
When I could stand it no more, I snuck out of the kitchen and tiptoed down the hall. I could hear the sound of Madam's voice from the bottom of the stairs, but not the words she was saying. I wanted to march up there and tell Ruth to come back and finish the butter.
I did not. I forced myself to work.
Becky took a tray of cookies and a pot of tea upstairs late in the afternoon. I pounced when she returned to the kitchen.
"Is Ruth well? Why does Madam keep her?"
Becky chose her words with care. "Madam has taken a liking to your Ruth, on account of her being so tiny and quiet." She sat at the kitchen table. "She means to use her for a personal maid."
"Most of Madam's friends have a slave to split wood and carry chamber pots, like you. If Madam has a slave dressed in finery, well that makes her more of a lady. Ruth can fan her when she's hot, or stir the fire when she's cold."
I forgot myself and sat down across from Becky. "She's making Ruth into a curiosity?"
Becky nodded. "Aye, that's a good word for it."
I went cold with anger, then hot, then cold again. It wasn't right. It wasn't right for one body to own another or pull strings to make them jump. Why was Madam allowed to hit me or to treat Ruth like a toy?
"Take care," Becky warned, pointing to my lap.
I looked down. My hands were clenched into fists so tight the cords that held my bones together could be seen. I released them.
Becky leaned across the table and spoke quiet. "I don't imagine you like this much. Can't say I blame you. But don't lose your head. Madam is not afraid to beat her slaves."
I rubbed my palms together. "Do they own more than us?"
"Half a dozen down to the Charleston place, none up in Boston. Never been to the Carolinas, so I don't know how they get along. But you need to calm yourself and heed what I am about to tell you."
"Yes, ma'am," I said stiffly.
"Two, three years ago, there was another girl here, slave like you. She talked back. Madam called her surly and took to beating her regular-like. One day she beat her with a fireplace poker."
"Did she die?"
"No, but her arm broke and didn't heal right. It withered and hung useless, so Madam sold her."
I could not hold the hot words in my mouth any longer. "She best not come after me with a poker. Or hurt Ruth."
Becky leaned back and studied on me a bit. "You ain't never going to say something like that again, not in my kitchen. I get paid decent here, and I won't let some girl like you get in the way of that. Wearing pretty dresses ain't going to hurt the little one, so wipe that look off your face and fetch me some more wood."
After that, Ruth's every waking moment was spent with Madam. Though we worked in the same house and slept under the same blanket, we had little time to talk. Ruth was permitted to sleep until the sun rose, went to bed when Madam retired, and rarely had to work in the kitchen or garden.
I lay awake every night, heart filled with dread, recalling the dangerous offer made by the boy in the floppy red hat.
Copyright © 2008 by Laurie Halse Anderson
...hundreds in this [New York] Colony are active against Us and such is the weakness of the Government, (if it can deserve the Name) that the Tories openly profess their Sentiments in Favour of the Enemy, and live unpunished.
-- Letter of William Tudor, Washington's chief legal officer, to John Adams
I was stuck on the back steps with a pile of dull knives and a whetstone. It was a dreary job. First, spit on the stone. Next, hold the knife at the proper angle and circle it against the stone; ten to the left, ten to the right, until the blade was sharp enough to slice through a joint of beef like it was warm butter.
As I sharpened, I imagined using the knife to cut through the ropes that tied us to New York. I'd slice through the ocean, and Ruth and me would walk on the sand all the way home. Ten circles to the left...
Ruth was abovestairs, standing by whilst Madam prepared herself for company. The master was locked in his library. Becky was somewhere in the crowd watching General Washington parade down Broadway with five regiments of soldiers. The sounds of beating drums and whistling fifes, and the cries of "Huzzah! Huzzah!" blew toward me over the rooftops.
I pushed everything out of my mind, save my task. Ten circles to the right...
Becky came back from the parade an hour later, overflowing with stories. She nattered on about the spectacle whilst assembling the tea things for Madam and Lady Seymour, who had come again to call. I pretended to listen. Truth be told, I didn't notice when she left carrying the tray.
Ten circles to the left, ten circles to the righty, all make the blade sharp and mighty. Ten circles to the left, ten to the right...
Becky called for me twice before I heard her proper. Her voice was high and tight. "...I said to hurry! You want to get me put on the street? Madam wants you in the parlor."
T he knife near slipped from my hands. "Is it Ruth?"
"No, the Lady Seymour wants to see you. And the master just arrived with gentlemen friends all calling for food and drink. Hurry!"
I washed up in the cold water bucket, quickly pinned on a clean apron, checked my kerchief was on proper and followed Becky to the parlor. She rapped lightly on the door and pushed it open. "The new girl, ma'am," she said, setting a plate of fresh-baked strawberry tarts on the table.
"Show her in," Madam said.
Becky waved at me to enter.
Madam and an older woman sat at the table, but my eyes were drawn behind them, to my sister, dressed up as Madam's pretty pet in a bleached linen shift, a navy-blue brocade short gown, and a full skirt patterned with lilacs. When she saw me, she clenched her hands together and bit her lower lip. Her eyes were red and swollen with crying.
My belly went funny and my mind raced. Why had she been crying? Was she sick? Scared? Did Madam hurt her?
Becky poked me gently in the back. This was not the time for questions.
I quickly dropped into a curtsy, bowing my head. When I stood up, the older woman, the lady aunt with all the money, gave me a shadow of a smile. She was smaller than Madam and wore a silk gown the color of a mourning dove and gray lace gloves. Her hair was curled high and powdered snow white. A necklace set with black stones shone from her neck. There were deep lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth, but ...
If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?
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.
From acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.