Alex Myers’s page-turning, adventure-filled debut novel is a vividly-detailed fictionalization of the true story of Massachusetts-born Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to enlist and fight in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
The story itself is a wonderfully colorful one, but Myers does a deeply imaginative job filling in all the details of how Sampson pulled off this incredible feat. Harvard-educated Myers has a special connection to the Sampson story. He’s a descendant of Sampson, as well as being a female-to-male transgender author.
Myers makes it clear that Sampson was a passionate fighter not just for American independence, but for her right to define and pursue her own life, despite the restrictive cultural conventions of the late 18th century.
Bored with her drudgery-filled life in Middleborough as a formerly indentured weaver and a 22-year-old single woman with few prospects, Sampson tells her friend Jennie about her dreams of escape: “There is a world out there, Jennie, beyond weaving, beyond housework,” and Sampson intends to explore it in a big way.
Myers shows how Sampson’s first attempt to enlist in the Army was thwarted by a local matron who informs on her. After Sampson flees arrest on the charge of impersonating a man, she successfully manages to join up in Worcester, taking the name Robert Shurtliff —
Myers brilliantly re-creates the difficult daily conditions of Army life in 1782 for a soldier like Sampson, who faces additional hardship because she must conceal her gender while living in close quarters with other soldiers. Myers describes it all: the terrible sanitary conditions of camp life, the monotonous exhaustion of drill and marching, the rough-and-tumble camaraderie among soldiers, the rudimentary medicine for the wounded, and the horrific chaos of battle.
Sampson falls in with three other soldiers, Tobias, Matthew, and James, who become her closest buddies.
Throughout the narrative, Sampson engages in an internal debate about questions of identity, of who she is and wants to be during and after the war. “Could she be Robert only, and do away with Deborah? Or would she always be both? She had created Robert Shurtliff, and now she had to believe in him, to become this man.”
There is, of course, much drama around Sampson’s hiding her true identity, and she’s almost discovered a number of times. Myers skillfully heightens the drama.
Sampson turns out to be a stellar soldier who consistently displays heroism in the thick of battle.
Myers also uses battle as a way to deconstruct masculinity. For instance, after Sampson kills a British sniper, she is praised by her superior officer, who says of her, “That soldier is a man.”
Myers, through Sampson, explores how identity is constructed and what “makes” a man. Is it valor in battle, rough language, physical strength, clothing, or something else? As Sampson wonders, “How easily they accepted her as another recruit . . . how quickly they would turn on her if they knew. Her clothes were like an eggshell about her, a thin layer of protection, a veneer that both kept out and held in.”
Myers’s winning story moves chronologically and geographically with the Continentals, as Sampson finds herself fitting in with army life.
As the book nears its end, Sampson struggles with what to do after the war, whether to remain a man and live out West or return home to Massachusetts as a woman. Myers handles it all with grace. “Revolutionary” succeeds on a number of levels, as a great historical-military adventure story, as an exploration of gender identity, and as a page-turning description of the fascinating life of the revolutionary Deborah Sampson.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@ comcast.net.