Three years have gone by since Isabel and Curzon escaped from Valley Forge and their enslavement by the cruel, sadistic Mister Bellingham. Now, as runaway slaves, they have already walked nearly 1,000 miles from Pennsylvania to Virginia to South Carolina in search of Isabel's younger, epileptic sister, Ruth, and dodging British and Continental patrols, armed Loyalists and bounty hunters along the way.
But when they finally find Ruth, Isabel doesn't get the reception she had been hoping for. Instead, Ruth is cold and won't even look at her sister. She has been living with an elderly slave couple and a young boy named Aberdeen since being sent south in 1776. Though the couple love Ruth as if she were their own daughter, they tell her to go north with her sister and to do what she says. Ruth may be obedient to her sister's requests, but she still wants nothing to do with Isabel, refusing to even look at her, much to Isabel's disappointment.
Meanwhile, Curzon's loyalty is still with the Patriots, while Isabel feels that neither the British nor the Patriots will help enslaved people like themselves achieve freedom, no matter what they promise. The two argue about this endlessly, so when Curzon, Isabel, Ruth and Aberdeen meet up with the Continental Army at Williamsburg, Va, they decide to go their separate ways. Aberdeen chooses to work as a spy for the British, Curzon rejoins the Patriot army, and the two sisters find work in a laundry run by Widow Hallahan. With a promise to be paid money, Isabel also finds work washing up and later serving in a tavern owned by Widow Hallahan's son and frequented by the Americans and French. But once the armies move on the Yorktown, Isabel wonders what will happen. It doesn't take long to find out. Isabel rightly suspects that Widow Hallahan has plans for Ruth that don't include Isabel - shades of Mrs. Lockton's treachery in Chains that originally separated the two sisters. Isabel quickly decides that it is time to leave, and the sisters make a daring exit from Williamsburg, following the armies to Yorktown, VA and finding work as cooks.
Though Isabel finds herself in the midst of the war, this last book in the trilogy is really about her, with the chaos and confusion of the war mirroring her thoughts and feelings about her and Ruth, and what the future will hold for them, and the place Curzon may or may not have in it. Isabel and Curzon have now known each other since she was 12 and he was 15. He is the only person she has ever really trusted, but as the war carries on around them, Isabel sees less and less of him, even as she thinks more and more about him. It takes a long time for Isabel to realize that Curzon can love her at the same time that he loves his country and he is willing for fight for both of them.
Laurie Halse Anderson has explored so many aspects of the Revolutionary War in her Seeds of America Trilogy that are not a part of the usual school curriculum. And she has brilliantly woven them into the story of these young enslaved people who only want their freedom, paralleling their stories with that of the Patriots who are fighting for their freedom and independence from Britain. She offers readers a vibrant history of a war that we traditionally think of in terms of white soldiers and leaders being fought for white colonists, forgetting or not even knowing that there were many African American soldiers who also fought, generally in place of their owners, in the hope of gaining their freedom after the war is over, soldiers like Curzon; and girls like Isabel, who were charged with helping to care of the leaders of the war with no real hope of future freedom.
Ashes ends with the surrender of the British and the end of the war. And for readers it is the end of Isabel and Curzon's stories, but Anderson offers us a hopeful conclusion to her Seeds of America trilogy, though there are no tidy answers about the future for Isabel, Curson, Ruth and Aberdeen. They must still head north, they are still considered to be runaway slaves, and there are still bounty hunters after them.
Chains, Forge, and Ashes are individually and as a trilogy so well-crafted that it takes my breath away when I think about it. They are honest, thought provoking, gripping adventure as they narrate the sensitive personal stories about people who traditionally have not had voice at that time. By giving Isabel and Curzon a voice, Anderson has opened our eyes to really thinking differently about the history of this country.
Be sure not to miss the extensive appendix at the end of the book which offers explanations and suggestions for further reading about many of the people, places and events included in Ashes.
I cannot recommend Chains, Forge, and Ashes highly enough.
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline