44 pages 1 hour read

Laurie Halse Anderson


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Ashes (2016), a young adult historical novel by American author Laurie Halse Anderson, is the third and final book in the Seeds of America series. This guide refers to the 2016 Atheneum eBook edition.

Plot Summary

Isabel Gardener and Curzon Smith, two black teenagers who escaped slavery during the American Revolution, have been on the run together for five years. After serving at Valley Forge, they’re travelling through the Eastern states, looking for Isabel’s little sister Ruth, who was sold away from Isabel when the two were only children. Isabel longs to see her sister and has also developed a longing for Curzon that she can’t admit, even to herself.

When the two find Ruth, it’s not the loving reunion Isabel hopes for. Ruth, who has epilepsy and some degree of intellectual disability, is under the care of an old couple named Serafina and Walter and a young man named Aberdeen, and she’s adopted them as her new family. She rejects Isabel immediately, but Serafina and Walter persuade Ruth to go on the run with Isabel and Curzon, and Aberdeen accompanies them. Together, the children will try to start new lives as free people. The friends make an arduous journey north, beset by illness, hunger, and exhaustion. Ruth continues to reject Isabel but shows that she’s canny, kindhearted, and tough, with a special affinity for animals. Isabel is heartbroken that her sister won’t acknowledge her but holds the group together with her wilderness skills and persistence.

The group makes it to Williamsburg, where a major battle between the Continental army and the British is brewing. The girls work in a laundry, while the boys go off to their own mysterious jobs; Isabel gets a sense that they’re not telling her something. When she discovers that the boys both joined armies—Curzon as a Patriot soldier, Aberdeen as a spy for the British—she has a falling-out with them, infuriated that they believe that either army truly has the interests of black people in mind, and upset that Curzon chose this dangerous course of action over staying safe with her. Shortly after this argument, Isabel and Ruth get separated from the boys when the laundress they work for burns their free papers and tries to turn them in for a slave bounty. The sisters are forced to flee in the night.

Out on the road again with just her sister, Isabel finally realizes that Ruth fears her because she believes that Isabel was responsible for selling her away. The two reconcile, and Isabel begins to see that her suffering has hardened her heart; she needs to be vulnerable as well as tough if she wants to live a complete life. The two catch up with the Continental army and seek work there as camp followers, doing odd jobs for the soldiers. However, Isabel is shocked to discover that she’s expected: Curzon has registered her as his wife to get her an official position.

As a decisive battle approaches, Isabel and Ruth find community and friendship among the soldiers, and Isabel and Curzon struggle with their barely-concealed feelings. However, the pressure of war teaches them both that they need to have the bravery to admit their love, and it helps Isabel to see that it’s possible to devote herself to a great cause and individual love at the same time. Meanwhile, Aberdeen is still working as a British spy. Isabel realizes that he and Ruth have feelings for each other when she catches Ruth bringing Aberdeen food in the night. The war catches Aberdeen up, and he disappears; Isabel presumes that he’s dead but lets Ruth go on believing that he’ll come back one day, understanding that Ruth needs to tell this story to go on loving what she’s lost.

Curzon is injured during a triumphant attack on the British, and as Isabel nurses him back to health, she confesses her love. The two are married and prepare to build a life of their own, struggling to make a foothold for themselves in a world that’s still deeply hostile to black people. In an echo of the series’ title, Isabel thinks of the seeds she’s carried with her through all her adventures: While freedom hasn’t come yet, she, Curzon, Ruth, and the rest of the nation will push toward the light together.

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