Written by Laurie Halse Anderson
Grades 7 and Up
The Seeds of America trilogy that began in New York City in 1776 with the National Book Award finalist Chains, and continued at Valley Forge in 1777 with Forge, concludes at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 with Ashes. While the book culminates the trilogy, it can be read as a stand alone novel as well. As she has done previously in Chains and Forge, novelist Laurie Halse Anderson paints a realistic portrait of life for both free and enslaved African Americans in colonial America, honoring the skills, expertise, and talents of men and women, clarifying the diverse roles that African Americans played in early America, and noting the dangerous and fluid boundaries between freedom, enslavement, and self-liberation. After years of searching and sacrificing to find her sister, protagonist Isabel finally finds her, with the help of her friend Curzon. But Ruth, who was sold into southern plantation slavery in 1777 as a consequence of Isabel’s spying on the British as they occupied Manhattan, refuses to acknowledge Isabel, and claims she does not remember her or her previous life in Rhode Island and New York. Despite this, Isabel assumes her role as caretaker, leading Ruth out of South Carolina, heading north towards Rhode Island, relying on her strength, wits, forged freedom papers, and Curzon to get there. But the war has other plans for them, and the trio winds up at the crossroads of Virginia as the Battle of Yorktown begins to take shape. With both armies relying on African American soldiers, and making promises of freedom they cannot keep, Isabel is forced to make a decision about which side she is on, just as she and Ruth, and she and Curzon, must determine the very nature of their relationships to one another. Readers will be pleased with this satisfying conclusion. With extensive back matter, Ashes has many roles to play in explorations of content, theme, and characterization.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Book Format and Meaning-Making. Before they begin to read, have your students take a closer look at the design of Ashes, Forge, and Chains. What stands out? What do they think book designer Debra Sfetsios-Conover intended when she put it together? Next, have students take a look at the Library of Congress’s virtual exhibit: 1750-1800 Books that Shaped America. What commonalities do these historic texts and the trilogy share? What are the ways in which the book format mimics books from the 18th century? Finally, as students begin to read the novel, have them consider why author Laurie Halse Anderson used quotes from primary source documents to introduce every chapter. As students read, ask them if they are using the quotes to preview content, considering the relationship between the quote and the events within the chapter, or ignoring them. Begin to incorporate the quotes as part of your discussion of the novel.
Author’s Craft: Descriptive Writing. Read aloud the description of Isabel and Curzon’s heightened senses on page 55 and again in the middle of page 58. What did author Laurie Halse Anderson have to learn or know about the natural world in order to write about these sounds and these vistas? Take your students outside of your school and have them do some free writing about what they see and hear. While they do that, take still photos and video clips to capture the sights and sounds. Come back into the classroom and have them begin to write a descriptive paragraph. Next, put them in small groups to have them compare and contrast what they wrote. What is specific? What is vague? Show the photos and play the video. What did they capture? What did they miss? How can their writing be more specific? Research the names of trees or buildings on or near your school. What about plants or flowers? Statues or street signs? After students have found out more, or paid more close attention to what was out there, have them rewrite their original paragraph so that it is more specific and detailed, and conjures up the sights and sounds in the reader. As students progress through the novel, they may want to find moments where Anderson uses sensory details to describe a place or a process (like doing laundry in the colonial period).
Author’s Craft: Everyday Details in Historical Writing. Presumably, author Laurie Halse Anderson had to learn a lot of historical information to write about everyday chores and tasks during the colonial period. Have students listen to a podcast about the medical field during the 18th century, explore the process of doing laundry, and colonial tavern cooking. After students listen to or watch some of these podcasts and videos, have them write a short historical vignette, having two people in Colonial Williamsburg speaking to one another while completing one of these tasks.
Ashes & Hamilton: Reconsidering the Battle of Yorktown. When your students get to Chapter 30 on page 175, take a moment to pause. Play them Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” from the musical Hamilton (spoiler alert – the f’bomb is in the lyrics). What perspectives do they hear in the song? What historical details? Next, have them read this New York Times story on Miranda, and the creation of Hamilton (including the “Why Hamilton Has Heat” section) and watch the PBS documentary on the making of the musical, “Hamilton’s America.” You might want to have students explore other songs from the musical, available on Genius.com. Next, ask them to share their reactions to the diverse casting choices and the ways in which the show and the Seeds of America trilogy shift their perspective on 18th century America. In what ways do both works of art broaden the representation of colonial America by being more inclusive of the people who were always there but who were rendered invisible over time? Finally, at the end of the book, have students listen to the song again, and consider the ways it served as both a preview and a synthesis of the events in Yorktown.
Duet: African American During the American Revolution. Using the Duet Model, have your students read both Ashes (2017), the historical novel, and Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution (2016), middle grade nonfiction. What similarities do they see between the characters in fiction and the real men and women who took action during the war? What are the differences? How do the two texts, one narrative, one expository, work together to give students a more thorough understanding of the war through the lens of the African American experience?
Perspective and Point-of-View. In our original blog post on Forge in 2010, we noted that Chains was narrated by Isabel in the first-person, and Forge by Curzon in the first-person, and anticipated what perspective the third book might take. What if Ashes was written from both Isabel and Curzon’s perspective? Have students select a favorite chapter, and rewrite it from Curzon’s point-of-view. What shifts and changes? What stays the same? Note: a similar idea was used in the Forge entry.
Ashes to Ashes. What role does fire play in Ashes? What role do ashes play? Perhaps your students will uncover this as they read. Perhaps you will want to ask them to look for images of fires burning throughout the book. Why did Anderson name the previous two books Chains and Forge? Both words are both nouns and verbs. Ashes are simply a noun. Do ashes merely represent destruction, and a dying fire? In the book, we see ashes and embers used to create new fires, heal and cleanse, cook, and create tools. What might Anderson have been trying to say about the book, about Isabel and Curzon, about America, with the title Ashes?
Taking Sides: Isabel and Katniss. In a literature circle format, have your students make their way through one of these two trilogies: The Hunger Games and the Seeds of America. Each trilogy features a strong and talented female protagonist who underestimates her own power. In each trilogy, the character grows and changes, and is often surprised by the positive light in which so many others respond to her. Have your students track the political leanings of Katniss and Isabel, particularly as they come to a climax in the third novel. In Mockingjay, the third novel in The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss decides to side with the rebels against the Capital early on in the novel. In the Seeds of America series, it is not until the climactic moments of Ashes that Isabel decides to side fully with the rebels (Continental Army) against King George. As students progress through the two series concurrently, have them compare and contrast the similarities and differences between Katniss and Isabel. To what extent are their attitudes and attributes rooted in the circumstances of their time and place and its political challenges (the actual past versus dystopian future)? To what extent are their qualities observed in today’s young people around the world?
African American Soldiers in the Aftermath of Yorktown. Anderson does not give readers of Ashes a simple happy ending. Curzon is despondent when he learns that the Continental Army is rounding up African Americans who self-liberated in order to join the British Army, and its promise of freedom, in order to return them to their owners and/or the institution of slavery. Have students discuss their reactions to this episode. How did it impact them as readers? Would their response have been different if one of the characters they knew was one of those enslaved? Have they learned about this elsewhere in their history education? Next, have them compare and contrast two documents that address this moment in time: the portion of the PBS Africans in America that deals with Battle of Yorktown, the second to last paragraph of this article from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, and the sixth and seventh paragraphs in this National Park Service overview of African Americans in the American Revolution. What bias to your students see in these different representations? Knowing what they know from the historical novel and author’s note, what information is missing from each? How does it change someone’s understanding of what happened if they read just one of these resources and not all three?
Independence. On the verso page, author Laurie Halse Anderson quotes from the Declaration of Independence. Below the quote, she writes: “This book is dedicated to the fulfillment of that promise.” Why? Have we fulfilled the Declaration? If not, why? In what ways is that work incomplete? Have your students look at photographs of the actual document, and then read the full text, all available from the National Archives. Next, have students read the 1777 petition to the Massachusetts legislature, asserting the equality of African Americans and the Declaration of Sentiments, on the rights of women, from the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848. Finally, have them look at this interactive Bill of Rights from the National Constitution Center. In small groups, have them use these historical documents as a springboard for research on civil rights in 2017 in America. Is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” available to all Americans? Most? Some? Rather than debate the issue and have a “winning” side, instead have students in all groups display their findings in a way that captures the complexity of this question. Perhaps students can create graphics to demonstrate the ways in which they recognize how the sentiments in the original Declaration have and have not yet been fully realized.
General Resources About African Americans During the American Revolution
Resources from Colonial Williamsburg
Battle of Yorktown
Slavery in Colonial Rhode Island and New England
Anderson, L. H. (2008). Chains. Simon and Schuster.
—–(2010). Forge. Simon and Schuster. (Classroom Bookshelf entry, 2010)
Collins, S. (2009). Catching Fire. Scholastic.
—–(2008). The Hunger Games. Scholastic.
—–(2010). Mockingjay. Scholastic.
Woelfe, G. (2016). Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution. Ill. by G. Christie. Boyds Mill Press.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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