This entry marks step two in my search for books that would fit my students request for “stuff with more DRAMA” (emphasis theirs)
For a while I thought that DRAMA meant personal turmoil, inner struggle and conflict. I’m not so old that I have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager, with all the private doubt and fear coursing through your veins on an hourly basis. So perhaps my students, who care so much for protecting and understanding themselves, thought of DRAMA as a subtle, internal tug-of-war.
I’ve written before about the author Laurie Halse Anderson, a woman called by some critics: “the Reigning Queen of Teenage Angst”. While her most popular and prevalent books remain modern stories of endangered young women. But a recent run of historical fiction, beginning with Chains, has given her a different audience, and a different setting to play in, even if the power of her protagonist’s internal struggle remains the same.
Embedding herself in revolutionary America, Anderson establishes a powerful heroine in Isabel Gardner, a girl no more than 12 who has lost her mother, father and cares for a younger sister in the grips of epilepsy. And while that, in and of itself, is enough to recommend her as a superb role model for young girls, the fact that Isabel is also struggling to free herself from the bonds of slavery adds a powerful element to the character and the story.
Anderson, as usual, does not accept an easy or stock answer to questions of right and wrong, just or unjust. Though Isabel suffers under slave laws and a petulant mistress, she finds solace in the compassion of people both white and black, working class and landed gentry, immigrants, indentured servants, rebels and British officers. The subtle interplay of individual personalities eventually creates a complete portrait of New York City in 1776 through the eyes of one slave.
Isabel’s struggle is clearly different from Anderson’s other protagonists, and so is her internal struggle. The physical pain or visceral emotions experienced by Melinda in Speak or Lia in Wintergirls is not as apparent for Isabel. Instead hers is a a familial despair borne of the situation and her inability to protect and nurture the one family member she has left, and a philosophical disbelief that the right thing to do is ignored by far too many people.
Whether students appreciate that philosophical struggle in the same way they acknowledge the physical pain or visceral emotions of other protagonists, I cannot say. Nor can I say whether or not young readers will push through Isabel’s formal language. Having learned to read and speak from concerned owners, she shows a grammar school appreciation of proper speech, which can seem alien to the modern day short hand of contractions and elisions. I am thoroughly convinced that Chains is an excellent text, worthy of study, though perhaps not among readers for whom contemporary language or general abstractions is a challenge.
But again, I’m afraid that Chains with all its subtlety, philosophy and internalization with an historical time period doesn’t quite meet that desire for DRAMA