My Brother Sam is Dead is a historical fiction novel told in the first person, through the eyes of ten year old Timothy Meeker. It recounts the hardships endured by Tim and his family during the Revolutionary War. When Tim’s older brother Sam joins the rebel forces, it impacts the rest of his family who wish to remain neutral and/or avoid war with England. Tim’s family is Anglican and thus loyal to the Church of England so a split with England would greatly affect them.
Through Tim Meeker we learn of the issues, the concerns and the conflicts of the rebellion on a personal level. Each chapter touches on a number of topics and issues that provide readers with a better understanding of the affects the American Revolution had on individuals, their families, their churches, their towns, their neighbors… in short, it allows readers to see the war from the position of those that lived through it. This is one of the greatest strengths of the novel; it quietly weaves all of the topics and issues of the early years of the American Revolution into a tragic story of a ten year old boy’s role in a war he doesn’t understand.
The novel highlights many of the problems and events that impacted towns like Redding, Connecticut and its inhabitants at this point in the war. Below are the topics that have been woven into this novel that I find the most intriguing.
- What individuals were experiencing at the onset of the Revolution.
The novel begins in April 1775 and ends in February 1779… a very volatile period of the American Revolution as it was not clear which side would win the war. Many were either still confused about the issues or unwilling to solidify a position on the issues. As the story unfolds the consequences of the war prove devastating to the Meeker family as the rebelliousness of Tim’s brother, Sam, and the pacifist position taken by Tim’s father, Life, result in the ironic deaths of both, symbolizing the atrocities and unfairness of war.
- Trying to stay neutral and/or ignore the Rebellion.
Life Meeker is a moderately successful business man and Anglican Church member who feels a rebellious split from England will put both his livelihood and his religion at risk. He does not want Rebellion; he simply wants things to remain as they are. Life’s decision to ignore the war and go about his business as he always has, proves to be fatal.
- The currency issues that arose because of the rebellion and the way it was funded.
The Meeker’s own a tavern/store, and keeping it running is hard work. Even prior to the Revolution, to make money, each year Tim’s Father and brother Sam would travel to New York State to sell cattle they received from people who owed them money. During the war it becomes even more difficult as paper money and commissary notes alter the values of existing currencies and negatively impact local economies and businesses.
- Sacrifices that families and individuals were forced to make during the American Revolution.
Since Sam has sided with the rebels and wasn’t there, Tim’s responsibilities have increased ten-fold. Jobs Tim and Sam used to share all now fall on Tim’s shoulders. Father (Life) takes Tim on his yearly cattle run to New York. They even have to travel without a Brown Bess (musket/gun used for protection), which Sam had recently stolen. Because Life is captured on their return trip from Verplanck, Tim has to take care of his mother and himself for the rest of the novel. He’s forced to grow up over night seeing he is now the man of the house, with his father in prison and Sam fighting with the patriots.
- Groups that formed during the war for both good and bad reasons.
Committees of Safety- These committees were formed early in the war to disarm people who could potentially give aid to the British. Life is an Anglican and thus seen as a Loyalist/Tory, by the local Committee of Safety which comes to the Meeker Tavern to disarm him. As the war progressed these groups worked to keep order in rural areas and assist those in need.
Cowboys and Skinners- Cowboys and Skinners were groups of raiders who harassed and plundered the rural districts of the boundary between American and British forces in Westchester County, New York. Westchester County, was the so-called “Neutral Ground” seeing the British were in the Bronx and the Americans in Peekskill, New York. Life is captured by Cowboys on their way back to Redding on their cattle run. cowboys.
- War time raids and brutal acts that are made during war.
In Chapter 10, the British march though Redding and capture several Patriots on their way to Danbury, CT to destroy the rebels/Patriot’s provisions of war which were being stored there. As the British leave town a local slave is accosted and brutally murdered as Tim watches in horror. The point the authors were making here is that war is cruel and people died.
- Winter Encampments and the issues within them during the early stages of the Revolutionary War- Theft of local livestock; spies and desertion; troop discipline.
General Israel Putnam’s division of the Continental Army is encamped at Redding in the winter of 1778-1779 and Sam Meeker is a soldier in one of Putnam’s camps. One evening, Sam slips away from camp and returns home to spend time with his family. While they discuss the war and related topics, Sam hears commotion outside… Patriot soldiers are attempting to steal their cattle! When Sam intervenes he is out numbered and beaten. Back at camp he is falsely accused of and court-martialed for deserting camp and stealing cattle. General Putnam having long dealt with ill-equipped troops, deserters and traitors, feels he needs to set an example in order to maintain discipline amongst his army. Sam, unfortunately, becomes one of the two examples that winter, and is executed.
- The Hardships of War.
Throughout the novel we are provided examples of the hardships that local communities endured during the Revolution and long after. Economically, socially, and emotionally the War of the Revolution was devastating on the individuals that lived through it and the narrative provided by Tim bring these feelings to life.
I believe the best way to use this novel in the classroom is to explore the issues I have listed above. Each chapter is geared toward giving us a better understanding of the hardships caused by the American Revolution and the effect it had on individuals, their families, their churches, their towns, their neighbors, etc… and thus the novel can be a very powerful learning tool if you are willing to look beyond the storyline.
My Brother Sam is Dead was written by Christopher and James Lincoln Collier and can be found in most book stores and public libraries.