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Rememory and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains
June 11, 2010, 8:48 pm
Filed under: children's literature | Tags: , ,

(Forgive my extended absence from this blog; I’ve been spending the last few months preparing intensely for qualifying exams. I’m proud to say I passed with flying colors and am now a doctoral candidate!)

Historical fiction for children, specifically historical fiction that engages with marginalized persons and/or groups, inherently comes with the baggage of decades (centuries?) of problematic representation. So much is cringeworthy. I recently returned to Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, for the first time as an adult, and was horrified. First, by the portrayal of Native people (who aren’t given a tribal identification, who are at one end or another of a savage/noble polarity, and who are consistently rescued or otherwise benefited by their relationship with the benevolent and somewhat condescending Caddie), and secondly, by my blindness as a (white, Jewish, middle class) child; when I read this book in girlhood, I never questioned any of these representations. I wish my mother, a feminist who gave me the book in hopes that I would enjoy Caddie’s “wildness,” had had the perspective to problematize some of these images for me.

I don’t suggest that these hurtful or reductive representations aren’t still present in the children’s literature that gets published today, but there are books that engage with historical marginalization, oppression and violence in potentially rich ways. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (2008) is one of the latter, though by no means perfect (there are still anachronisms that jar). What fascinates me, though, is the way in which Anderson openly engages with the poetics of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in her depiction of a young slave girl in 1776 New York City, refusing in large part the simplification of slavery for her young readers into a closed teleology wed to a linear temporality. This text privileges continual remembrance, particularly through deliberate destabilization, the foregrounding of a collective loss, and representations of a transatlantic diaspora suffused with mourning.

What makes Chains a remarkable book is in its refusal to make slavery something teleologically closed, and Anderson does this through evoking Morrison’s provocative term rememory, a word appropriated and put to work in many other works (scholarly and creative), but a word that startles when encountered in middle-grade fiction. Rememory hybridizes ‘memory’ and ‘remembering’ to suggest that memory itself can function independently of intentional, internal processing, that rememories are exterior, collaborating things. What I find most interesting about Anderson’s use of the term, though, is in its context – rememory is used not to evoke the slave’s relationship with her parents, in a thematic echo of Morrison, but in reference to Isabel’s former white owner: “He didn’t care that the neighbors would come around with cakes and platters of cold meat, and drink ale to the rememory of Miss Mary Finch of Tew, Rhode Island” (4).

Though this employment can be interpreted as a misuse or misappropriation of Morrison’s evocation, I think of it instead as a clarifying misdirection. Mary Finch is not the text’s mourning subject, but is, as Isabel’s owner, nevertheless implicated in the site of violence signified by rememory.  In Chains, as in Beloved, rememories have dimensions beyond the individual, and while Morrison evokes this as a kind of productive interconnectedness, Anderson, in her reorientation of the term, suggests that a reckoning with memory and representation can’t exclude the violent institutions that create the necessity for these connections.

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5 Comments so far
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Thank you for this gracious review!

Would you please email me the anachronisms you found in my book? If I made any mistakes, I would like to correct them.

Thanks again,
Laurie Halse Anderson

Comment by Laurie Anderson

Hi Laurie,

Anachronism is really not the best or most careful word choice on my part – I think what I was noting was more along the lines of what I read as some narrative or (possibly) editorial choices that seemed to be more reflective of an anticipated child reader’s desire for a certain kind of representation and exceptionality than a move towards evoking collective subjectivity/selfhood (I’m drawing on Lisa Lowe’s work here, in her article “Autobiography Out of Empire”). Isabel’s name, for example, seems to evoke a kind of royal alterity (the association I immediately made was Queen Isabella of Spain – I’d be curious to learn what kind of usage that name had in America in the 18th century), especially when contrasted with the names Dinah and Cuffe, which I know from my (very limited) research were not-uncommon slave names. And Isabel’s speaking back so violently to Madam Lockton, as well as her love of reading and the mere fact of her literacy, seem to me to be exceptional traits that set her apart from the major part of lived experience of slavery. Not that there weren’t verbal expressions of anger made by slaves, or that there weren’t slaves who could read – certainly there were, and I definitely don’t wish to suggest that these traits of Isabel are historically impossible – but that these traits seem more evocative of the 21st century child reader’s desire for Isabel to assert herself – to speak back against horrific treatment; to love to read like the implied child reader presumably loves to read – than about the desire of Isabel, or the desire of the collective slave subject, to regain subjectivity or to merit inclusion within a spectrum of humanity.

I do want to clarify that none of the above is criticism, but a reflection on how tricky that borderland is between historical representation and contemporary readership – and ultimately just an academic thinking far too much about what is really an extraordinary book, and one that I loved. The way you evoke Morrison, and the way you refuse closure through narrative is impressive and honest, I think, to slave experience(s) – I was especially taken with the images of water and haunting. Have you read Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother? The line “They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand” was so evocative of her work.

Thanks for taking the time to comment! I’m very much looking forward to reading Forge when it comes out.

Comment by Kate Slater

Thanks for the clarification, Kate.

One of my purposes for writing this trilogy is to spark a discussion about Colonial-era slavery, and slavery in the North. Much of what we learn about slavery in the US comes from the antebellum Southern era.

There were some significant differences between the two.

One of those differences was the relatively larger number of Colonial-era Northern slaves who were taught to read religious texts. After the Great Enlightment, some slave owners believed they were called by God to provide religious instruction to their slaves. This is the case for Isabel.

Her name (and its spelling) came from a list of slaves I found on a tax roll. For me the attraction to the name was the “bell” that rings in the last syllable.

Her willingness to stand up to Lockton, again, rests on documentation. There are loads of primary sources that give us the evidence of slaves standing up to owners. Lockton’s decision to send Ruth away drove Isabel to the breaking point, plain and simple. I believe that to expect her to act in any other way is to underestimate the strength of the human heart.

I have not read Saidiya Hartman’s work, but will add it to my list. Thank you!

Comment by Laurie Anderson

My pleasure, and again, I appreciate your taking the time to write here!

Comment by Kate Slater

Doh!

I wrote my earlier replies while on the road, so maybe I can plead distraction, but….

by “Great Enlightment” I meant, of course, “Great Awakening.” Here’s a link to a brief discussion of the literacy efforts in VA that were a part of that religious revival: http://www.historicpolegreen.org/resources/slave_literacy.php.

Comment by Laurie Andersob




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