Newbery Project – My Brother Sam is Dead

I did not think I would enjoy this book, which won the Newbery Honor in 1975. The cover blurbs generally focus on something like “Tim’s brother is a Patriot and his father is a Loyalist! Poor Tim doesn’t know which side to be on!” which made it sound like it would be a wishy-washy narrator who has a coming-of-age moment when he realizes that he doesn’t have to follow in his father’s footsteps and inevitably joins on the side of the rebels. I should have realized that such a predictable plot-line and character arc are not what wins a Newbery Honor. Instead of what I thought I was going to read, I encountered what has to be the best anti-war book aimed at middle school students that I have ever read.

Far from being about whether Tim chooses to be a Tory or a Rebel, Tim’s coming-of-age moments generally happen when he is forced to the conclusion that war is hell and that everyone involved in the war, on both sides, is irrevocably changed by the experience, and not for the good. Both sides do heinous things, and both sides make excellent points about why they should win. I’m so used to reading books set during the Revolution that just assume that obviously the Patriots were the good guys and fighting the cause of the just, that it was twice as shocking to see the gritty reality portrayed here. Tim’s epilogue written as an adult even says that while he thinks, in the end, that becoming their own country was a good thing, he wishes it could have been done without having to go to war.

One of the things I appreciated about the book is that we were not witness to any battles. Historical fiction centered around a major event (like a war) generally bends over backward to put the main character at a turning point in the event. Not so here. We see the war from the point of view of a backwater village. Battles are fought far away and the effects of the war are felt in the lack of food, lack of security, and the many friends and neighbors who are killed in distant parts. When the British pass through very briefly there is a fatal skirmish and when the Patriots camp out in town there are dramatic repercussions, but neither of these highly traumatic scenes are parts of a battle or very important in the big picture. Part of the power of the anti-war message in the book is how many characters are killed as a direct result of the war for stupid reasons that have no real impact on the “glory of war”.


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