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Book brief: 'Ashes' by Laurie Halse Anderson

Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson. Atheneum Books for Young Readers $16.99 Ages 10 to 14. 274 pages
The cruel irony at the heart of the American story – a nation founded on the promise of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” while denying liberty to so many – comes to life in thrilling, intimate detail in Laurie Halse Anderson’s brilliant, revelatory and now completed “Seeds of America” trilogy.

This final installment, “Ashes,” takes up the story, begun in “Chains”and continued in “Forge” – of sisters Isabel and Ruth, denied the promise of freedom by a master in Rhode Island and sold to a British couple in New York City, then separated as Ruth is sent to South Carolina.ashesAs “Ashes” begins, Isabel, now 17, and her friend Curzon have walked 1,000 miles in pursuit of Ruth, and are slogging in summer through a hellacious South Carolina swamp – under siege from snakes, mosquitoes, and “lobsterbacks” - toward the plantation where Ruth, now 12, was taken.

The action takes place in the summer and fall of 1781, with the Battle of Yorktown as a backdrop. Anderson creates the scene with breathtaking, cinematic detail – the chaos of the sprawling battlefield, a tavern kitchen, a laundry where Isabel and Ruth find work, Isabel in constant fear of losing Ruth or being stolen by bounty hunters.

Anderson sets the historical record straight at the same time she tells a compelling love story – the love Isabel has for her sister, the budding bond of romance between Isabel and Curzon. What a hero is Isabel - a fierce, brave soul who at 17 has been taught time and again that no one can be trusted and who believes Curzon is deluded in believing his service in the Continental Army and its revolution will mean anything good for “the stolen.” And yet she carries in her haversack the seeds she hopes to plant in her own garden one day. Anderson captures the music of their speech, as they argue: “You are a muzzy-headed blatherskite.” “You’re a vexatious cabbage head.”

This fine trilogy should be required reading in schools. And unlike the other standout novels of the American Revolution for a young audience – M.T. Anderson’s “Octavian Nothing” books – “Ashes” ends on a hopeful note. Anderson includes a fascinating appendix Q&A style answering such questions as: how many slaves freed themselves during the Revolution, what happened to the people held in slavery by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who escaped and ran to the British, and the interesting fact that at least 5,000 black men fought for the Patriots during the Revolution, and much, much more.

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