Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Alex Myers' Revolutionary, based on the true story of a female Revolutionary War soldier

“You must be able to imagine how good it feels to be assumed capable and intelligent and not always to have to prove this matter,” writes Deborah Samson to her friend, Jennie, during her remarkable Revolutionary War service, which she accomplishes while disguised as a man named Robert Shurtliff. In his debut, transgender author Myers relates the story of a courageous, real-life woman. His straightforward, clear prose lets the important and complex issues he raises shine through, including gender identification, the desire for self-expression, and the meaning of freedom in an era when women’s choices and actions were severely constrained.

The novel follows Deborah, a tall, sturdily built 21-year-old who escapes repressive Middleborough, Massachusetts, in 1782 by enlisting in the Continental Army. Crisply rendered scenes shift from days of camaraderie and routine camp life around West Point to deadly skirmishes, the unmasking of traitors, and the discovery of unexpected love. With this thought-provoking work, Myers resists modernizing Deborah/Robert’s predicament and lets readers explore both the external and internal transformations of this valiant American soldier.

Revolutionary is published today in hardcover by Simon & Schuster (320pp, $26) and as an ebook (currently $11.89 on Kindle). This review first appeared in Booklist on 11/15/13.

Some additional observations:

- I used to live down the street from Middleborough (also spelled Middleboro), Massachusetts, and enjoyed seeing the town as it would have appeared in the 1780s even though it clearly wasn't the most comfortable environment for a female servant who wanted some measure of personal independence. Two of my ancestors were living there back then, so I imagine they would have been familiar with Deborah's story.  Today, Middleboro may be best known as the "cranberry capital of the world," as the headquarters for Ocean Spray.

- Per a note from the publisher, the author, Alex Myers, has a genealogical connection to Deborah Samson Gannett (her married name), and learned about her life story from his grandmother.

Statue of Deborah Samson Gannett, located in
front of the Sharon Public Library, Mass.
- If military historical novels aren't usually your thing, fear not.  Revolutionary provides just enough details on marches and musketry to inform readers without getting bogged down in technical details, and the development of Deborah/Robert's character remains at the center.

- Deborah realizes that in addition to trimming her hair, binding her breasts, and wearing men's clothes, she has to adopt a male mindset to pass herself off as a soldier successfully.  There's one particular scene I thought was especially creatively written; the pronouns used to describe Deborah (she, her) begin to shift and mingle with male pronouns (he, his) until the transformation is complete, and the viewpoint of Robert takes over.  Because the English language forces us to use pronouns to describe gender, that scene may seem confusing upon first reading, but I quickly realized it was necessary; it also performs a valuable service in making readers think about what's going on in her/his mind.

- Has anyone else noticed a mini-trend of novels about historical women who disguised themselves as men to escape the restrictions of their sex?  In addition to Revolutionary, there's Erin Lindsay McCabe's I Shall Be Near To You (Crown, also January), about a woman who fought alongside her husband during the U.S. Civil War, and William Klaber's The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell (Greenleaf, 2013), about another real-life woman who adopted a male persona in 1855 to earn higher wages, and who kept the disguise up for most of the rest of her life.  Forthcoming will be Kathy Hepinstall and her sister Becky Hepinstall's The Girls of Shiloh, listed as a deal in Publishers Marketplace in December.  Publication will be 2015, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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