Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thumbs down for My Brother Sam is Dead

Today I waited for my daughter at our church's Primary activity. They have a quarterly activity that is just a fun time for the children to fellowship with each other. While I was waiting, I read the book, My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier. It is a rather slow read, written in a dispassionate voice.

It takes place in Redding, Connecticut which was primarily a Tory town. The father was anti-war, and he brooked no argument from his sons on any issue. (The book hints at an interesting event in the father's life but did not develop it.) When his oldest son comes home from Yale wearing the uniform of Captain Benedict Arnold's troops, he forbids him to go and they get in a fight over it. The younger son is around 10, although I'm not sure his age is ever revealed. His friend is 10 though.

The main point of the story, as explained by the authors, was to show that war, and the reasons for it (any war), is very complicated. The final message (again by their own words in the afterword) was to leave an anti-war message. Since the storyteller in the book was the boy, it revealed the confusion in his mind as to what was occurring. That was the main success of the book, I think.

As I read the book, I became concerned that my children would not be interested in it because the voice is very passive, a retelling of something long since gone and of no great import. Excuse me? The Revolutionary War shaped our nation--it was of great import to all sides. England took a terrible loss, leading to their decline as the world power, our nation was formed, and our government and people were shaped by it. As this book attempted to show, nearly everyone was impacted in some way or other.

I began to seriously object to the book when at a chapter when Sam has left his post and come back to see the neighbor girl, Betsy. She suddenly appears to have been a love interest but not one his parents have any knowledge of. Normally, they would have been very accommodating of her being at their tavern/store, but they were not. They didn't seem to approve or disapprove of her as they would have a girlfriend. This particular setting is one where Sam is sitting on the ground with Betsy. Interesting. Wouldn't it have been difficult for her to have sat on the ground in the clothing she would likely have been wearing?

A short while later, Tim (the younger brother) sets out to take a message that is presumably a spy message from a Tory to someone in a town quite a distance away. Far enough that it would take 5 hours there and 5 hours back. He's doing it on the sly, and the person he is doing it for knows he does not have his father's approval. Again, would that really have happened? The gentleman was respected in the community as was Tim's father. Both were Tory.

On the way, he meets up with Betsy who is also going that way to see Sam. That caused me a bit of a jump, because a young lady of 15 would not typically have been free long enough to make a 10-hour journey alone. No parent would have allowed it, nor would the work at home have allowed her enough time to be gone that long. Had there been a pressing reason, someone would have been with her for protection. There were known soldiers in the area, and 15-year-old girls would hardly have been safe on a lonely road with only occasional farmhouses along the way.

Betsy overpowers Tim to get the letter, but not without explicit profanity using the Father's name quite a lot. No young lady of decent upbringing would have used such language in that day, nor would Tim have calmly accepted it as status quo. He would have been shocked by it. From that point on, that type of language was used occasionally by the authors. Unfortunately, you hear it all the time today but not then. Certainly not by women who were of respectable families.

The authors make a slight apology for the language in an afterword type of chapter explaining how much of the book is true. They pretend that we really don't know exactly how the characters would have spoken. I found that interesting because a great deal is known about the etiquette, manners, and language of each region so I believe they simply did not want to take the time to research it more fully. Other authors have. Their main purpose seems to have been delivering an anti-war message.

This book could have done a better job of a) engaging the reader, and b) developing the people--they were shells. The authors had to tell us that Tim had grown up because of his increased responsibilities because they didn't show it. I do not understand why it was awarded the Newberry Honor Book award, but there are quite a few of recent years that have mystified me.

Another book I recommend much more highly for the targeted readers, showing the Tory viewpoint much more completely is Dear America: Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Green Marsh, Massachusetts, 1774. This was a much more complete portrayal from a Tory.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I haven't heard of this book. Thanks for the review.