Cy Williams is not a slave, but his life is far from his own. Growing up in Georgia in the 1890s, he knows that the cruel white plantation owner his father works for could throw him in jail or even kill him in a second.
When a tragic accident leaves the plantation owner’s son—and Cy’s best friend—dead, the blame falls on Cy. Still mourning, Cy finds himself bound and blindfolded, on the way to a chain gang where he’ll work, shackled to a line of other boys who dared to make a white man angry. Four years spent working under the threat of a whip breaks Cy’s spirit and drains him of all hope that he’ll ever see his father again. But when his father appears with clean clothes and a plan, Cy dares to believe there might be freedom in his future.
Cy in Chains is a difficult, painful novel, but it’s an important one. Cy quickly morphs from a kind, compassionate boy, looking out for his friend before the accident, to a young man who’s been broken by a life of hard work and cruelty, and who comes to see compassion as a weakness he can’t afford.
His transformation is shown in sharp contrast from another boy on the chain gang, Jess, whose deep faith keeps him hopeful and who takes care of the younger, weaker boys. Jess’ sense of responsibility to help those who can’t stand up for themselves highlights Cy’s every-man-for-himself attitude, as well as exposing the cracks in it. It’s a prerogative Cy adopted to survive, not a true representation of his character.
The details of the horrors Cy and the other boys suffer at the hands of the men who run the chain gang are vivid and varied, from sexual abuse to physical abuse, to neglect so severe their lives are in danger. Each new punishment is more horrible than the last.
Cy in Chains is a book for those who love historical fiction and don’t want the horrors of the past sugar-coated.
Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School