"My Brother Sam Is Dead"

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier: Book Cover


Book: My Brother Sam Is Dead

Authors: James L. and Christopher Collier

Publisher: Scholastic Inc., revised in 1995

ISBN-13: 9780590427920

ISBN-10: 059042792X

Language level: 4 (a lot of cursing and swearing)

Reading level: I would not recommend it for anyone under 16

Rating: 2 stars (POOR)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

For more information e-mail homeschoolbookreview@gmail.com

Collier, James Lincoln and Christopher. My Brother Sam Is Dead (published in 1974 by Four Winds Press, a division of the Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Ave., New York City, NY 10022, and republished by Scholastic Inc., 730 Broadway, New York City, NY 10003). In my experience, there is a lot of youth historical fiction set in the Civil War period but not as much in the Revolutionary War time. Esther Forbes’s Newbery winning (and excellent) Johnny Tremain comes to mind, as well as Seymour Reit’s Guns for General Washington. When I posted this comment on a homeschooling list and asked for recommendations, I received a couple of suggestions. One person said of My Brother Sam Is Dead, “This is supposed to be a good book about the Revolutionary War but it does have several ‘cuss’ words in it,” although another responded that she did not like it as much as Jean Fritz’s Early Thunder. Therefore, when I saw it on the sale table at the local library I picked it up. Do you really want my opinion? Well, to say it has “several ‘cuss’ words in it” is an understatement. It has A LOT of cuss words in it! Especially for a “junior novel.” The “d” word (sometimes with God’s name attached) is used often, and the names of God and Jesus are frequently taken in vain. Even worse are a couple of vulgar epithets used derogatorily to question a person’s parentage (one used by the young lady heroine of the book), along with other forms of cursing. One review source, which gave the Recommended Reading Level: Young Adult; Read Aloud: 11+; Read Alone: 11+) said, “Language: Infrequent, mostly religiously themed profanity.” That, too, is a real understatement, if they are talking about the same book that I read. Other objections that I have are that there is a good deal of lying along with many, many references to drinking alcohol, and Sam is said to have engaged in “lascivious” behavior in college. But the worst thing is the rank relativism inherent in the story. The New York Times Book Review says, “Assumes for once that children can think.” Critical thinking is important, but much of what passes today for “critical thinking” is simply a form of “values clarification” based on “situation ethics.”

     The authors appear to be presenting the American War for Independence from a “neutral” stance to let children decide for themselves whether it was right or wrong. Tim Meeker’s father is a Tory but his brother Sam is a Patriot. Tim goes from thinking his father is right, to thinking his brother is right, and finally to deciding that neither side is right. There is one extremely graphic description of the British army’s slaughtering a small band of Patriots, after which Tim decides that he does not much like being a Tory. The authors might not agree with me, but I basically came away with the conclusion that they are anti-war and really believe that the American War for Independence was unnecessary and that there should have been a better way. I am willing to grant that the Colonial Army may not have always acted in a “lily pure” way, but this book tends to present them as nothing more than just a bunch of over-zealous rebels and almost anarchists, although there are a few attempts at “balanced fairness” by portraying the British as less than sterling too. There may be some place for a novel like this for older teens who have already studied the principles behind the American War for Independence, but it is definitely not for younger children nor is it suitable for a family read aloud. Along the way, Father is captured by Patriots but, oddly enough, dies on a British prison ship, and in the end, Sam is arrested by his own colonial troops on the false charge of stealing cattle (from his own family, no less) and executed by shooting. The book ends, “They had shot him from so close his clothes were on fire. He went on jerking with flames on his chest until another soldier shot him again. Then he stopped jerking.” If it were not for the following epilogue, one would come away with a very negative view of the American patriots. The Colliers admit, “Of course, we have had to make a good deal of it up….The exact things that we have had these people do and say in this book are fictitious. We have tried to make them act as we believe they would have acted under these circumstances, but we are only guessing….There was no execution of Sam Meeker, because Sam didn’t really exist.” They do say that two other people were executed by General Israel Putnam very much as they described the death of Sam Meeker, but, “the eye-witness reports are contradictory, so we cannot be sure of all details.”

     So, was someone really shot for the false charge of stealing his own family’s cattle? The authors do not actually claim that such an event happened for that reason, and to base a whole junior novel about the American Revolution on such a questionable event is itself highly questionable. Judy DaPolito of Children’s Literature said, “This compelling book’s refusal to romanticize the Revolutionary War makes a powerful statement about the failings of both sides, and by extension, the failings of all wars.” Well, no, we do not want to romanticize any war, including the American Revolution, but some wars have had to be fought (unless we all want to go around saying, “Heil, Hitler”), and in many of them there were a right and a wrong to consider. All in all, I can see why my friend did not care for this book. I did not either. Five students reviewed the book for Common Sense Media. Two said, “Great book. Really touched me and gave great history over the revoulutionary war” and “I felt that the book was great to read!…” That scares me! However, two others said, “This is a simply written book which took my eighth grade advanced English class two months to read. SO BORING!! Ugh. SPOILER WARNING. The title is a dead give away of the ending. Sam gets shot for a trumped up charge. The details are graphic, there is lots of drinking and discrimination, lots of death, and overall, it just gets repititive after about three chapters. Not very challenging, but mildly entertaining. Very depressing though at times,” and “A stupid literature book. STUPID!!! Do NOT READ!!!” Five other students reviewed the book for Barnes and Noble. Four of them thought it was great, but I agree with the one who said, “This book is absolutely preposterous. It was boring, slow moving and depressing. What more is there to say? Don’t read it!” Give me Johnny Tremain–or Early Thunder–or Guns for General Washington–or just about anything besides My Brother Sam Is Dead!

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