When Laurie Halse Anderson's novel CHAINS was published in 2008, it became a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The book introduced young people to an important --- and often overlooked --- chapter in American history, as Anderson told the story of the dawn of the American Revolution through the eyes of a young slave girl.
Anderson now continues this work in FORGE, the second book of what will eventually be a trilogy. Here the narrative shifts gears from Isabel to her friend Curzon, a fellow runaway who becomes separated from Isabel but finds safety --- of a sort --- when he enlists as a soldier fighting on the American side during the Revolutionary War. As one of the few black soldiers, he is disrespected --- and worse --- by some of his peers and his officers. With his customary courage, hard work and loyalty, however, Curzon gains the respect and even the friendship of many of his fellow soldiers.
All the young men's fortitude is brutally tested, however, when they are told to report to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the winter of 1777 and 1778. As Curzon and his comrades struggle just to survive, Anderson vividly brings to life the horrifying details of life in Valley Forge, unflinchingly documenting the hardships that most high school history books just gloss over. From surviving days without food to digging trenches in frozen ground to trudging through snowdrifts in just a pair of wet, stinking socks, Curzon's story, and that of all the men, will both repulse readers and remind them of the soldiers' remarkable fortitude and bravery.
Besides being a compelling, unfailingly realistic account of the winter at Valley Forge, though, FORGE's story also serves as a powerful metaphor: "This camp is a forge for the army," remarks one character. "It's testing our qualities. Instead of heat and hammer, our trials are cold and hunger. Question is, what are we made of?"
What indeed? Curzon finds himself asking this question and others when his past as a runaway slave starts to catch up with him. By all accounts, he should be freed; he has kept his part of a bargain that he made months earlier. But he doesn't have paperwork showing he's been freed, and if he's revealed as a runaway, hunger and cold will be the least of his problems. One beloved but complicated relationship from his past also resurfaces when he encounters Isabel once more and must deal not only with their shared and separate histories but also with his evolving feelings toward her.
Once again, in FORGE, Laurie Halse Anderson has managed to compose a historical novel that feels both entirely true to its period and completely contemporary. Curzon's voice rings true as that of an 18th-century young man, but its sophisticated narration and storytelling style introduce contemporary perspectives seamlessly in ways that will not only allow readers to reflect on their own times but also to reconsider their understanding of and approach to history. With its extensive historical notes and glossary, FORGE (like CHAINS) would be an ideal classroom companion to more traditional history-book fare, one that readers will likely relish as much for its sensitive storytelling as for its gutsy depictions.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 19, 2012