What kind of place was New York City in 1776? Was it larger or smaller than it is now? What kind of smells, sights and sounds would you experience if you were transported back in time and wound up there?
What would you have done in New York City back then? Would you have worked, been a slave, or played outside? Which children went to school? What kind of activities would you do with your friends?
New York City was a very busy place, even back in 1776. Would you have been brave enough to leave your house in the middle of the night?
Isabel had a very painful and horrifying moment when she was branded with the letter ‘I’. What has been the worst time of your life and how does it compare to Isabel’s pain?
How does the title Chains connect to this book? Can you think of any alternative titles that could have been used?
Have you ever dealt with an older sibling leaving for college or moving out of the house? How do you think this compares to how Ruth and Isabel felt when they were separated?
Many children have chores to do around the house, but could you imagine doing the things Isabel did! What are your responsibilities around the house? Are they close to the same things Isabel was forced to do?
What do you think the adults did all day in 1776? Did they work, fight or sit around the house? Is this what your parents do?
It can be hard to watch your younger (or older!) siblings have it easier than you. What does this feel like to you, and to Isabel?
Do you think it is fair to ask a twelve-year-old to work as hard as Isabel?
Living in New York City right at the birth of our country must have been wonderful! How do you think other children reacted when they heard news of the Declaration of Independence? Were they happy to be free, nervous for their family to have to fight or something else? How do you think the slaves felt hearing this news?
Mattie, from Fever 1793, felt many of the same things as Isabel but almost 20 years later. How do you think these girls were similar? Could they have been friends?
Did you know that the northern states had slaves? What did it feel like to learn that Isabel was a slave from Rhode Island?
Did you know that the Declaration of Independence was first approved on July 2, 1776? How would you have reacted when you heard the news?
How did it feel to hear the Locktons lie and pretend to be Patriots so that they could get past the docks?
What would you have done when you learned that Elihu Lockton was working for the Loyalists? Do you think Isabel did the right thing?
Isabel frequently goes to the water pump to get water for cooking and bathing. On one trip, a group of enslaved African Americans are discussing their options for freedom (page 161). Which option would you have taken?
What did the Grandfather mean at the water pump when he told Isabel to find her River Jordan? Have you heard that phrase anywhere else before?
Write up a missing slave ad that Madam Lockton might write while she is looking for Isabel. You can study the runaway ads at for details.
Isabel has several vivid dreams in Chains. Create a dream journal that she might have kept by her bed to document them. You might find it fun to create new dreams relevant to her daily activities. Remember, while she could write (roughly ten percent of slaves in the North could), pictures would also help explain what she’s feeling.
Research weather patterns and plant types in the region of New York City. Try to figure out what kind of seeds Isabel might have planted throughout the year to keep her garden going.
It must have hurt when Isabel was branded with the letter ‘I’ on her cheek! How would a doctor, or maid, have cared for her? What type of pain medication and wound cleaners did they have? You probably won’t find Ibuprofen and Neosporin!
The area of the fire has historically been prone to harsh times in New York City. What are some other things that have happened to that part of the city? Create a letter to send to Real Estate Agents letting them know what has happened there and come up with some ideas of what to create on the land.
Many people don’t realize how fundamental slavery was in their area before, during and after the Revolution. Was slavery legal in your state? If so, when was it finally abolished? Look up the progress of African American rights and come up with a timeline of the important events.
Pretend you are the Lockton family. Come up with a budget plan for living in those days. Don’t forget to pay your maids, but not the slaves. You will also have to remember to save money for the groceries, care of the horses, fabric for clothing and a few special items for Elihu when he comes home.
Find the number of residents and slaves in New York City in 1776. What percentage of people were slaves? Create a graph to represent this information.
It is time to do the grocery shopping. How often do you think you will have to go? What should you buy when you go? How will you get it home? Remember that they didn’t have refrigerators or cars. They had to be very careful to not let any food spoil, especially in the summer months. Try to list the ingredients needed for a breakfast of muffins, sandwiches for lunch and a big chicken supper (you can add the side dishes!).
Split the classroom up into Patriots and Loyalists. Recreate a few scenes from Chains that have a lot of action and characters. The slave auction, docking in New York City, water pump, reading of the Declaration of Independence and Colonel Regan’s fort are a few good places to start!
Turn your classroom into New York City circa 1776. Find a map of the city at the time and allow students to find where they would like to live. To recreate the daily battles you could have contests in math, history or vocabulary (period related if you would like!). The winner of the contest, Patriot or Loyalist, would then get to take over another part of the city from their opponent.
If you have classroom activities that you would like to add to this page, please email them to Louise, QueenLouise AT madwomanintheforest DOT com. Be sure to include your name, school, and address so we can give you credit for your contribution!
Discussion Questions and Classroom Activities are copyright 2008 Meredith L. Anderson and Laurie Halse Anderson. Permission is granted for classroom use only.
Chains Reading Group Guide
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
—The Declaration of Independence
July 4, 1776
ABOUT THE BOOK
Set in 1776 at the beginning of the American Revolution, Isabel and her younger sister, Ruth, are robbed of the freedom granted them in Miss Mary Finch’s will. The girls are forced to leave Rhode Island when they are sold to a cruel and ruthless Loyalist family from New York. As the war between the Tories and the Patriots escalates in a city divided in its loyalties, Isabel’s personal battles grow. Madam Lockton, the wife of the new owner, is spooked by Ruth’s fits and sends her away. Isabel is abused and branded for disobedience. And Curzon, the boy who convinces Isabel that the only way to freedom is to become a spy for the rebels, is captured and thrown in prison. Feeling lonely and desperate, Isabel is faced with a difficult question: Should she work for or against the British? When Isabel searches deep within her soul for the answer, she makes a life-changing discovery — she is loyal only to herself. Thus begins her real journey in the pursuit of freedom and happiness.
The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. What did our forefathers mean by the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?” Think about these words as Isabel’s story unfolds.
- Describe the life of slaves in the American colonies in the 1700s. Discuss the difference between a servant and a slave. How did Miss Mary Finch’s view of slavery differ from that of most slave owners? Why does Mr. Robert accuse Isabel of lying when she tells him that she read Miss Mary’s will? Explain why Pastor Weeks thinks that teaching a slave to read only “leads to trouble.”
- Mr. Robert collects Isabel and Ruth on the day of Miss Mary’s funeral. Why aren’t the girls allowed to take personal items with them? Explain the symbolism of the seeds that Isabel hides in the hem of her dress. She plants the seeds, and one day finds that the plants have died. What do the dead plants represent? There is another plant metaphor in the novel. Explain what the mayor of New York means when he compares the rebels to vines.
- Role models may be found in real life and in stories. How are Isabel’s momma and Queen Esther, from the Bible, her role models for bravery? Discuss the connection between bravery, courage, and fear. What is Isabel’s first act of bravery? Discuss her most fearful moments. How is her bravery and courage fueled by her fears? How does she become bolder and braver as the novel develops?
- The American Revolution was about freedom and liberty. Mr. Lockton, a Loyalist, thinks that freedom and liberty has many meanings. Define freedom from his point of view. How might the Patriots define freedom and liberty? Isabel has lived her entire life in bondage, but dreams of freedom. What does freedom look like in Isabel’s mind?
- Discuss why Curzon thinks that Isabel will be a good spy. At what point does she accept his offer? Isabel feels betrayed by Curzon. How is Curzon betrayed by Colonel Regan? At what point does Isabel understand that Curzon’s dream of freedom is the same as hers? How does this realization help her forgive him? At the beginning of the novel, Isabel needs Curzon. How does he need her at the end of the novel?
- Isabel encounters a woman in the street singing “Yankee Doodle,” and realizes that the woman is a messenger. What is the message? Colonel Regan gives Isabel the code word ad astra to use when entering the rebel camp. The word means “to the stars” in Latin. Why is this an appropriate code word for the rebels? How does this word foreshadow Isabel and Curzon’s ultimate escape to freedom at the end of the novel?
- The mayor of New York, a Loyalist, says, “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who is the beast? Who is the head? Why is Lockton so adamantly opposed to the mayor’s proposal?
- Isabel says, “Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at me face, my kerchief, my shirt neatly tucked into my skirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel.”
- What is the lion inside of Isabel? What does Lady Seymour see in Isabel that Madam Lockton doesn’t see? How does the “lamb” in Lady Seymour help the “lion” inside of Isabel escape?
- Explain the following metaphor: “Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul.” What precipitates such sadness in Isabel? How does the hive grow bigger before Isabel learns to destroy it?
- The old man that Isabel calls Grandfather says, “Everything that stands between you and freedom is the river Jordan.” He assures her that she will find it if she looks hard enough. What is the figurative River Jordan in the novel? Discuss all of the tributaries that feed into Isabel’s River Jordan.
- The bookseller gives Isabel a copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine. He advises her that the words are dangerous, and that she should commit them to memory. At what point does she understand Paine’s words? How does the book give her courage?
- What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? There are several references to chains throughout the novel. How is the word “chain” used as an antonym to the word “freedom”?
Developed by Pat Scales, Freelance writer and Children’s Literature Advocate, published by Simon and Schuster (2008)
Inspiration for Chains
From the Desk Of…Laurie Halse Anderson
It was Benjamin Franklin who set me on the path to write Chains.
Benjamin Franklin owned slaves.
This shocked me. I knew about the slaves of Jefferson and Washington, but Ben Franklin? I loved Franklin, I adored him. How could he own slaves? This rocked me to my core. I realized that I did not understand the extent of slavery in colonial America. I spent years rummaging through archives, visiting museums, and pestering historians with relentless questions.
In the beginning I was disillusioned and disheartened. I am a proud and patriotic American and I could not reconcile my love of country and admiration for the Founding Fathers with the fact that so many of them owned people who had been kidnapped from their homes in Africa, or were descended from people who had been kidnapped.
Because it wasn’t just Franklin. Ten of our first twelve presidents owned slaves, the notable exceptions being John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. Interestingly, Abigail Adams grew up in a slave-owning household. Her father, Rev. William Smith, owned at least two African Americans: Pheby and Tom. Aaron Burr was a slave owner, as were generals Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates, first chief justice of the United States John Jay, the famous artist Charles Willson Peale, and one-third of the members of the Continental Congress.
In 1776, while the rhetoric of freedom and liberty was thick in the air of Boston, Providence, New York, Albany, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and Charleston, fully 20 percent of the population of the newly christened United American States — one in five — were owned as property and sold like cattle. Uncovering this bewildered me and made me sick to my stomach.
As I researched I began to hear my main character, Isabel, whispering to me. She was chained between two nations. The British promised freedom to any slave who fled to British lines, with one exception — slaves owned by Loyalists would be returned to their owners. The Patriots talked a good game about freedom, but few were willing to extend that inalienable right to people of color.
Isabel is the heart of America, yearning for the promise of our Revolution, but attacked at every turn by hatred and ignorance. She is the property of wealthy Loyalists in New York City, watching as Washington’s troops falter and the city is turned into a stronghold of the Crown. Isabel must negotiate the daily chores of a slave, the challenges of a shifting political landscape, and the dangers of a battle zone. Above all, she must find a way to rescue her little sister, who was sold away from her.
Working on this book eventually made me hopeful. My melancholy about the poisonous effects of slavery lifted as I understood that people like Isabel and her friend Curzon were the real Americans, the quiet ones who fought battles every day and grew stronger in the face of resistance. They were willing to risk everything for liberty, knowing that it is better to die fighting than to live in chains. But it is best to live free, in a world where we are all valued, in the world that our Founding Fathers and Mothers dreamed of, even if they weren’t brave enough to make the journey in their lifetimes.
Slavery affects all Americans today, regardless of ethnic background, or how long our families have lived here. Slavery is the elephant in our country’s living room. It won’t go away until we acknowledge, understand, and deal with it.
I hope that Isabel’s story will help young readers break free of the chains of ignorance and misunderstanding. I pray they will be strong enough to move our country forward to empathy and healing, and finally allow America to fulfill the precious dream of liberty and justice for all.
How to put On a Colonial Tea
Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About
the Women and Girls of the American Revolution
Chains and Forge
by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Form a committee. Team up with local Historical Society, library, teen book club and/or community. A committee of 4 -6 people would work nicely.
- Select a Date and location to hold the event. Time: Tea Time, of course!
- Encourage Community Reads Program to select one of Laurie’s historical books. Prompt Teen Book Clubs to select books as a monthly read; suggesting that attendance at event count towards meeting. Discuss event with school librarians, English teachers and Social Studies teachers.
- Develop format of tea. Activities could include book discussion, time to eat, readings from books.
- Encourage, but not require, period dress at event. Do you have any re-enactors in your area who interpret the colonial era?
- Create a menu appropriate to the time period. See recipes below
- Divide responsibilities for cooking and tea preparation.
- Borrow china teacups, tea pots, and silver serving pieces.
- Publicize the event in your local newspaper, schools, and libraries. Print flyers and tickets. Media coverage – encourage reservations and/or presale tickets and encourage attendees to wear period clothing. (Especially fun for young ladies!)
- Remember to read the book!
- Purchase Independent Dames, Chains and Forge from river’s end bookstore (email@example.com) to have signed by Laurie Halse Anderson and given away as prizes during event. (river’s end will take care of having books signed and mailed to you)
- Have a wonderful event!
- Send photos of event in JPEG format to Queen Louise for inclusion on website!
Sample Menu: *denotes recipe follows
Tea, lemonade with sliced lemons, water
Sugar cubes and cream
Lancashire Cheese Scones *
Almond Biscuits *
Orange Cranberry Muffins
Cornmeal Muffins with assorted jams and jellies
Walnut Tarts *
Watercress Tea Sandwiches *
Molasses Cookies *
Lemon Curd Tarts
Unsalted Roasted Almonds
Dolley Madison’s Brandied Seed Cake *
Lancashire Cheese Scones
taken from A Little Book of English Teas, by Rosa Mashiter – Chronicle Books
1 ½ cups self-raising flour 1 egg
2tbsp margarine a little milk
½ cup Lancashire cheese, grated pinch of salt
pinch of cayenne pepper a little beaten egg
Put the flour and margarine into the food processor and process until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the cheese, salt and cayenne and process to mix – just a few seconds. With the machine switched on add the egg, together with just enough milk to make a soft pliable dough. Roll out on a lightly floured board and cut into rounds using a pastry cutter. Place on a greased baking tray, brush with beaten egg, and bake for about 20 minutes at 425 degrees.
taken from A Little Book of English Teas, by Rosa Mashiter – Chronicle Books
¾ cup self-raising flour 1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup ground almonds 1tbsp caster sugar
a few flaked almonds
Sieve the flour into a bowl, and rub the butter in with the fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the ground almonds and caster sugar, adding a little milk, to form a soft dough. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured board, to a rectangle about 7 inches square an place on a greased baking sheet. Brush with a little milk and sprinkle over a few flaked almonds. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees. Immediately they come out of the oven cut into fingers, then allow to cool.
Courtesy of the Mexico Historical Society, Mexico, New York
1 recipe for pastry for a double crust pie:
2 ¼ cups flour ¾ tsp. salt
2/3 cups shortening 8-10 tsp. cold water
3 slightly beaten eggs 1 cup corn syrup
2/3 cup sugar 1/3 cup melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla 1 ¼ cups walnuts
Prepare and roll out ½ of the crust, cut into desired round size. Put into tart cups, mold into shape. Bake until dough is partially baked; spoon filling into tart and bake again till done. 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Repeat with other half of dough.
Watercress Tea Sandwiches
Courtesy of the Mexico Historical Society, Mexico, New York
16 ounces cream cheese = enough for 2 ½ loaves assorted breads
Warm cream cheese in microwave to make it easy to spread on bread; top with fresh basil and other slice of bread. Cut into tea sandwiches.
Courtesy of the Mexico Historical Society, Mexico, New York
1 cup shortening or vegetable oil 1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs 1 cup molasses
½ cup mild or sour cream 4-5 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda ½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cinnamon ½ tsp. allspice
¼ tsp. ginger
Whisk together oil and sugar, eggs, molasses and milk. Sift dry ingredients together; stir into wet ingredients.
Drop by tablespoons on baking sheet. Add 3 or 4 raisins – sprinkle sugar on top. Bake 12 minutes in a 375 degree oven. Cool 2 minutes on baking sheet, then on rack.
Dolley Madison’s Brandied Seed Cake, Modern Style
taken from White House Cookbook edited by Janet Halliday Ervin – Follett
1 package (1 pound,1 ounce) white or yellow cake mix
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1 tbsp. caraway seeds
½ cup milk
¼ cup brandy
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix cake with nutmeg, add milk, stir until mix is moistened. Beat one minute at medium speed with electric mixer or 150 strokes by hand. Add eggs, stir and beat one minute. Add seeds and brandy and beat one minute. Bake in ungreased nine-inch loaf pan about one and a quarter hours or until golden brown and crust springs back when lightly touched with finger. Let cool in pan on rack thirty minutes. Loosen with spatula, remove cake and place it on rack for complete cooling.
Hands-on Activities & Social Action Projects
Create a National History Day project about Colonial-era slavery or the American Revolution in New York City.
Study the website of the African Burial Ground National Monument. Are there neglected burial spaces in your community? Contact the people responsible for the neglected cemeteries and volunteer to clean them up and restore honor to the graves. What can you learn about the people buried there?