My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James and Chris Collier

April 17, 2011 at 14:19 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , , )


Historical fiction for children or teenagers is as a rule dreadful gaudy stuff, full of beads and the proper way to churn butter, respectful apple-cheeked children and dreadful litanies of mucking out farmyard animals and lighting fires. There is always some note of pain or loss, to teach youngsters how tough things were in the olden days, and the stories always end on a positive note–all the better to worm their way into school libraries, where tragedy is seldom encouraged.

This rather simple tale of the American Revolutionary War incorporates striking realism (that is to say, it has just the right amount of domestic humdrum) to be good history; at least equivalent a six-hour trip to a carefully recreated colonial town. It has all of the hallmarks of a rather pithy story attempting to disguise education as something interesting and relatable, but it also manages to tell a decent adventure story, and the Colliers do a good job of limiting the tiring stuff of tavern life, and bringing the war to the forefront. Whenever wood-chopping or cow-milking is mentioned, the reader will have an almost palpable sense of the authors’ impatience, and their welcome desire to take their story somewhere more interesting.

Ultimately, it is the politics of this book that distinguish it from the swirling slurry of tawdry adolescent fiction. The conflict is described in simple terms, but with a constant and noticeable escalation throughout the book. Never do the writers rest on their laurels, but continually develop and elaborate the various tensions between the loyalist and rebel parties. If they can be accused of spelling things out somewhat painfully at times, they have their target readership to think of, and if they can be blamed to some extent for the drearier sections of this book, then they can at least be praised for their effort to balance the historicity with a compelling story.


1 Comment

  1. David said,

    Fair enough — as I said, the arrogance of youth (I was probably in 6th grade, maybe 8th when I read it) and my immature belief in the inherent superiority of fantasy literature (still present, in a way, but much matured and less dogmatic!) unfairly prejudiced me against My Brother Sam Is Dead — although I ended up liking Johnny Tremain. Anyway, thanks for this review. Your complaints about self-consciously educational children’s historical fiction are much of what I disliked when forced to read them. if I ever return to the book, I will do so with a far more generous mood than my young self did.

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