At the opening of the story, Isabel believed she and her sister would gain their freedom upon the death of their enslaver, Mary Finch, as outlined in her will. However, Mary's nephew, Robert Finch, sells Isabel and Ruth to a Loyalist couple: Master and Madam Lockton of New York City. The Locktons treat Isabel and Ruth with brutality and abuse. While Isabel is expected to mirror the loyalties of her new enslavers, a new friend named Curzon convinces her to spy for the Patriots, hoping that by giving their aid it will grant them their freedom. Isabel is able to gain valuable intel from her Loyalist enslavers and smuggle it to the Patriots, including information about a plot to assassinate General George Washington!
After Madam Lockton cruelly sells Ruth, Isabel seeks aid from Colonel Regan hoping he will reward her for her valuable service, but he refuses to help her and sends Isabel back to the Locktons. Isabel faces grave consequences for her actions. Madam Lockton punishes Isabel by branding the letter “I” on her cheek. Afterwards, Isabel is shown kindness and loyalty by her friend Curzon when he helps get her to safety, as well as sympathetic aid from Lady Seymour, the Lockton’s wealthy aunt.
In the meantime, the Patriots have been driven out of New York City as the British, under General Howe, occupy the city. General George Washington faced his first major defeat as he was forced to retreat. Many prisoners were taken captive, including Curzon. Isabel continues to aid the Patriots and secretly brings food to the prisoners and Curzon. When Madam Lockton discovers this, she punishes Isabel so gravely that Isabel knows it is time to muster the courage to escape. Against all odds, Isabel steals a pass, breaks Curzon out of prison, and rows them both across the Hudson to New Jersey. While Isabel has escaped her enslavers, she has not found freedom just yet. The novel ends with Isabel and Curzon on the run in New Jersey. Isabel is determined to find her sister Ruth and she has discovered an inner strength and courage that will carry her through.
Chains is not only a fascinating and compelling novel, it is valuable in teaching students about the time period, slavery, and the American Revolution. The novel references numerous factual people, places, and events and even begins each chapter with a quote from a primary source. This book would compliment any unit on slavery and the American Revolution as it offers multiple opportunities for in-depth discussions and analyses.