The New York Times, November 11, 2016
If success is its own cage, Laurie Halse Anderson keeps finding ways to wriggle free. Other authors might have spun a whole career out of "Speak," that classic affidavit of the high school outlier, or at least mined its laughing-through-tears vein to depletion. Anderson, without ever slighting her original reader base, has continually found other places she wants to be. The results have included "Vet Volunteers," a series of animal-clinic mysteries aimed at kids, and more ambitiously, "Seeds of America," a trilogy of middle-grade historical novels set in the throes of the Revolutionary War.
"Ashes," the final volume in that trilogy, confirms that Anderson's authorial restlessness has yielded an enduring new set of characters: embattled teenage slaves, condemned to rove up and down the Eastern Seaboard in search of family and freedom—and always just one step ahead of their pursuers. "Ashes" is, in no particular order, a war story, a romance, a coming-of-age tale (several times over) and—here is where things get edgy—a challenge thrown down by a white American writer to white American pieties. It's a book that asks: What good is a revolution that stops halfway?
This all sounds perilously close to high-mindedness, so maybe now is the time to add that "Ashes" is a thumping good read. A rattlesnake pops up at the end of the first chapter, and over the ensuing 250-plus pages, the story's pulse rarely slackens. None of which would matter so much if Anderson hadn't also given us a heroine for all seasons in Isabel, the indomitable and hardened refugee who, through all her tribulation, refuses to submit her spirit to shackles.
When we first reconnect with her, she has been toiling for many years and many more miles—from New York City to Valley Forge to the Carolina swamps—to track down her beloved epileptic younger sister, Ruth, shipped off to a Charleston plantation. Ruth is at last found but is not so glad to be found as Isabel had hoped, and the sisters' future course is by no means clear. The upheavals of war have left America's slaves ("stolen people," Isabel calls them) in a state of uneasy autonomy. "Some were searching for kin, like us. Others were seeking a safe spot of ground they could call their own.... All of us who wandered thus owned only the clothes on our backs. We relied on our wits to keep us fed. We traded information like coin." Through this treacherous and shifting landscape, Isabel and her party wend their way north, only to be stopped once again by the war—in this case, the extended siege of Yorktown. Pinned down on yet another battlefront, Isabel must grapple with where her political allegiances lie and, at long last, gauge her true feelings for Curzon, her longtime companion in adventure and woe.
"Ashes" isn't the most powerful book in Anderson's trilogy. It contains no moment quite so harrowing as Isabel's branding in the first volume, nor any characters quite so diabolical as the loyalist Mrs. Lockton or the patriot Bellingham. As for the climactic battle, Isabel is the first to acknowledge it's not a guns-blazing showdown but a campaign of attrition. In this, it bears some resemblance to Anderson's work, for the cumulative impact of "Ashes" derives, at least in part, from our having followed these characters through such a long and weary pilgrimage. A third of Isabel's life has been spent under war's shadow, and any redemptive moments become all the sweeter for being so hard-won.
Beneath the sweetness, though, lurks an unreconcilable bitterness. Isabel and Curzon, in the midst of calling each other names like "muzzy-headed blatherskite" and "vexatious cabbagehead," argue over which army has their true interests at heart. Curzon, in thrall to the rebel cause, harkens to the dream of "a nation built on freedoms." Isabel reminds him that they have been enslaved by patriots and loyalists alike and that "neither side was talking about freedom for people who looked like us." In perhaps the book's most stirring moment, she declares: "I am my own army. My feet and legs, my hands, arms and back, those are my soldiers."
"Ashes" ends on a note of precarious hope, but Anderson allows the inherent contradictions of the American Revolution to linger unresolved. She pays her young readers the ultimate compliment of not writing down to them, of letting them see how bitter and bloody—and incomplete—a nation's birth can be.
© Louis Bayard