I picked up My Brother Sam is Dead because it is a Newbery Honor book and available from my library as an audio book. Tim and Sam’s father is Tory in this tale of the American Revolution. He just wants to be allowed to live his life and continue his business of running a tavern in Reading, Connecticut. He wants his sons to stay out of the rebellion, so we get more than the traditional American of-course-the-revolution-was-a-good-thing viewpoint. Neither the Tories nor Patriots are “the good guys” in this book; the war itself, with its indiscriminate killing and abuses of power, is the ultimate bad guy. The injustice of the ending (Sam is dead) left me incensed and must surely anger young readers. The author asks the question if the goal of freedom and rule by the people could have been accomplished without bloodshed.
I have long suspected that if I had lived at the time, I would have immigrated to Canada. Although I believe thoroughly in the values of the Declaration of Independence (all men [not just land-owning white men. Women too!] are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights), I’m not sure that killing people over taxes can be justified before the God of the Bible. There has to have been another way. Canada eventually achieved independence without fighting Britain, although one could argue that they would not have succeeded without our having demanded the right of representation first.
But the question is definitely worth exploring. Had I been writing the book, I probably would have made my character a Quaker pacifist or a parson’s son, so as to more freely explore the spiritual implications of the conflict. As a secular book, the authors are reduced to a mild civic piety and the pursuit of property (a good American value) as motivation for the Tories. The characters made lip service to the Bible’s words on authority and labelled some things as “sin” without demonstrating any significant spiritual motivation.
When I posted my usual on-line review of what I had read, I noticed the book had been on banned lists. There is some pretty gruesome violence and strong language. They also drink beer (kids included), which isn’t surprising when they run an 18th century inn. The voice is very modern, which I assumed was designed to make young readers feel like the events of the Revolutionary War happened to kids just like them, although for me it detracted from the sense of historic reality. The author’s note at the end, which explained what was historic and which characters were invented, said that they used modern language because no one really knows how they talked in those days. A site on banned books included a sample letter from a fifth grade teacher telling parents the class was going to be reading this controversial book. That letter explained that although the book included profanity, that was the way people talked in those days and they would not be endorsing profanity in their everyday speech. Excuse me? We don’t know how they talked in those days, but we do know they made liberal use of profanity?
It was about then that I noticed the date of publication—1974. I had shrugged at the profanity because we hear so much of it these days (and because I was reading for my own information, not recommending to a pre-teen.) But 1974? That’s my generation. That profanity is there for shock value, not for authenticity.
Suddenly the outlook on the Revolutionary War took on a whole new hue. 1974 is nearing the end of the Vietnam War. “War is evil; both sides are bad guys” has a very familiar ring to it. Questioning the righteousness of the American founding fathers in their struggle for independence suddenly sounds a lot like the undermining of our national heritage that my parents were so concerned about. I found myself wondering about the motivation of the Newbery committee that chose to honor this book in 1974. The deliberations of the committee are kept secret in perpetuity, so we can never know. Given the blah writing—chapter endings like “That night my cousins and I slept by the fire” just don’t inspire me to turn the page and read on—I find myself wondering if the choice was politically motivated.
Forty years later does it make a difference? Probably not. A book lives or dies based on how it touches readers. I’m not sure how many people read this book anymore besides people like me, systematically working their way through award winners. I would love to see a book for young people that honestly grapples with issues of war and justice and trusting a loving and sovereign God when everyone around you is pulling out their guns for a quick and easy solution. (Come to think of it, see my review of Mitali Perkins' Bamboo People.)
Where am I going with this? I don’t know. I just know that although I wasn’t particularly impressed with this book before, I liked it less when I saw the date of 1974.
What do you think? I’m not talking about Hitler. He is one indisputable bad guy, but what about all the wars to “defend our freedom” that also just happen to protect our oil rights, or our economic markets, or our standing as a world power? What did Jesus mean when he said pay taxes to the Caesar who minted your coins and built the infrastructure of your economic system? What did he mean when he said to walk a second mile with the abusive Roman soldier who commandeered you to carry his gear? What did Paul mean when he said to submit to those in authority—at the time when Nero ruled the world and burned Christians as human torches to light his parties? I’d love to hear your perspective, but please be respectful of those who differ with you. No muskets or bayonets allowed on this site.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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