Teenaged Isabel and her five-year-old sister Ruth had understood they would be freed upon the death of their owner. But the recent Revolutionary upheavals in distant Boston prevent contact with the lawyer who drew up the will, and the girls are sold to a Loyalist couple, who take them to New York. Isabel is set to work in the kitchen, and Ruth is made a half pet, half page for Mrs. Lockton.
Isabel overhears Lockton’s friends talking about a plot to kill George Washington. If she passes the information on to the Rebels, they may be grateful enough to assist her to freedom. Her information helps foil the plot, but she learns that both sides view slaves as legal property of their owners. When the Rebels give her back to Mrs. Lockton, an attempt to run ends with Isabel caught, beaten, and branded on the face. Worse, she learns the Locktons have sold Ruth away. Isabel realizes that if she is going to find justice, she can only rely on herself. She embarks on a dangerous plan to make an ally of a fellow slave who’s a British prisoner.
Chains vividly portrays slave life in colonial New York. Anderson includes rich detail not found in the average history textbook, such as constantly having to suppress feelings, even when ill-treated, never owning shoes that don’t pinch, and what it feels like to be branded. These cruelties will make the reader really feel for Isabel, and root for her to find a way out. This is an absorbing book that immerses the reader into the colonial world. A “runaway slave” ad at the end of the story advertises a coming sequel, and an appendix answers questions, such as whether Isabel was based on a real person.