Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Forge”
The American Revolution from a slave’s point of view (from the New York Times Book Review)
Men in tricorn hats dressed like American Revolutionaries and their spouses as Betsy Ross lookalikes, the Tea Party insisting the right-wing agenda of their political party makes them the legitimate heirs of the Founding Fathers–this is an interesting time for Laurie Halse Anderson to publish “Forge,” her new novel about the Revolution and colonial-era slavery, and a sequel to her prize-winning “Chains.”
While her books take up some of the same themes as the “Octavian Nothing” novels of M. T. Anderson (no relation) — the link between the freedom of the colonies and the freedom of slaves, the double-dealing and hypocrisy of both the American colonists and the British — they are as different as “Magic Mountain” is from “The Diary of Anne Frank”; the two volumes of “Octavian Nothing” are encyclopedic and magisterial, whereas “Chains” and “Forge” are conspicuous for their almost claustrophobic narrative voices.
In “Chains,” significant events involving the Tories and the patriots unfold in the background while the voice of Isabel, a slave, commands our attention; the commotion outside enters her consciousness only as “buzzing.” On the inside, however, Isabel is screaming. Within her sensory cocoon, this slave girl’s life is one of constant hurt from whippings, a branding, imprisonment, and mistreatment. In this, “Chains” is not far from Anderson’s first and still most well known novel, “Speak,” which reports the inner monologue of a fourteen-year-old girl who is raped and grows mute.
A new narrator appears in “Forge” (the second book in an anticipated trilogy). Curzon is another slave and the boy who captured Isabel’s interest in “Chains.” The scene changes too, from a besieged New York to the winter encampment of Valley Forge. But what continues is the close, internal voice of an abused narrator. Curzon is not only a freed slave returned to bondage, but a new recruit in the Continental Army during that winter’s freezing cold and constant hunger.
Valley Forge has forever been linked with Thomas Paine’s question about whether the American Rebel would prove to be merely “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.” Here, Curzon supplies an answer. Intent on gaining his own freedom as much as that of the colonies, he endures — with the help of poor white friends, in the face of evil slave-holding gentry and despite the petulance of Isabel, his romantic interest, with whom he is dramatically reunited when both are re-enslaved.
It is difficult to imagine there will ever be historical fiction about this time in America that is more nuanced or respectful of time and place.
When it comes to background research, Anderson has clearly and commendably done her work. It is difficult to imagine there will ever be historical fiction about this time in America that is more nuanced or respectful of time and place. Historical quotations serve as epigraphs to each chapter, hinting at what will follow. Her appendix provides annotated list of recommended books by historians and is expanded on her Web site. Her accounts of the hardships at Valley Forge are moving and vivid. Using her considerable skills as a storyteller, she has brought the past to life.
In our own times, Tea Party acolytes have bizarrely reimagined America’s radicals and revolutionaries as proto-conservatives whose primary concern was fiscal restraint. Anderson’s “Forge” is a terrific return not only to the colonial era but to historical accuracy.
A version of this appeared in the New York Times Book Review (February 11, 2011) identifying me as a professor at San Diego State University. A few days later, the staff of a Florida congressman (known for his Tea Party sympathies), contacted my university to find out whether I had ever received any federal funds for the university’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature; at the time, I was the Director of the NCSCL. I presumed this inquiry was prompted by a desire to find out whether federal monies had subsidized the mild complaint against the Tea Party that appears in the essay above. Rather than a stirring defense of free speech and remarks about the “chilling effect” of such inquiries, I explained to university officials that we had not received any federal funds but they could advise the congressman that we would welcome them.
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