This was a family read. It was a fairly quick read (216 pages), and everyone liked it.
But first, a back story that might be interesting:
I happened to pick up, My Brother Sam Is Dead at my daughter’s math night-slash-school cast off books book sale for about ten cents. I know I would have never picked this book off any shelf or table if it were completely unknown to me. The back cover does not quite get the content right, yes, Tim Meeker has a dad who is a loyalist and a brother who enlists in the American Revolutionary Army, but this book is more than making a choice between the two. The book itself is a reprint from its 1974 Four Winds Press text. There is really not much about the packaging, i.e., the cover art, the recommendations, brief back cover summary, and even it being a Newbery Honor Book that would encourage anyone to dash to the counter to make a purchase. I saw it sitting on the table and grabbed it. A bargain, I thought. I, like others who jump for things that don’t quite make sense to anyone else, had a deep relationship with this book, which could never be known to anyone except about 25 fourth graders in Miss Hansen’s class at School 23 in Avenel, New Jersey in 1975. Whatever anyone thinks about public education and teachers, here is an example of the magic that occurs in a class between teacher and students. Here is something that cannot be measured in a time frame that is understandable to the folks at Pearson, and here is something that ought never to be overlooked when we think of replacing our education system with online teaching and our lesson plans with administrative standardization:
I remember it so well. My fourth grade teacher, Miss Hansen, said she was going to read to us. “Read to us? We’re in fourth grade, really?” She told us she was going to read My Brother Sam is Dead, one chapter every Friday, at the end of the day. “Okay, whatever, as long as we don’t have to do math” (which at the time was multiplication & division — a year later than it comes today). The beginning of Fun Friday commenced. We loved it. The class could not wait for the next chapter. In fact, I remember my friend, Cheryl McElroy, and I, as we got closer to the end of the book, snuck inside the classroom during recess and peaked at the final pages just to find out if indeed Sam gets executed by the patriots for whom he so passionately fought. How hooked we were!
I held on to the memory of that book, and the memory of being read to for over 40 years. It was the best fourth grade experience I had had. In fact, it is the only elementary school experience I absolutely cherish. It was not just being read to that made it special, but the entire dynamic: the teacher reading so well, the students sitting silently and listening — no one disrupting it at all (and in 1975 everyone had something that went untreated or undiagnosed), and finally it was the way we talked about the book, and had an interest in something other than ourselves. It also made me want to read to people. Many years later I taught Spanish at the university level and read stories to my students. And, when my children came along I read to them, and still read to my youngest who is eight. So when I saw this book sitting on a table at school as a cast off, I jumped at the opportunity to share it with my daughter. She was five when I bought it. I had to wait three years before I could actually read it to her! It didn’t matter; I knew I would be reading it eventually.
I read it knowing I would have to explain about the the American Revolutionary War, and probably I was going to get some questions about Sam’s execution. I had forgotten some of the details, however, and so reading it as an adult I could easily see why my teacher thought it was worth a collective read. Not only is it a coming of age story about Sam’s brother, Tim Meeker, who finds himself at twelve years old taking on more and more responsibility, but also it is not a glorious or glamorous presentation of the War. In the beginning it seems as if there are two clear sides: the Loyalist’s and the Patriot’s. Sam’s father happens to be loyal to the King, but he really just wants to run his tavern and take care of his family. Sam, on the other hand, is young and eager to prove himself. He is at Yale University when the War breaks out, and finds it easy, and necessary at that age to oppose his father’s rule and sign-up for an adventure. Tim does not have a side. He is often thinking to himself that both his father and brother make good arguments regarding their respective sides. So he shuttles back and forth trying to have a relationship with both of them as well as beginning to grow-up himself.
There are some mildly graphic depictions of death that surprised my eight year old. It is not filled with extreme detail, but there are a few scenes where the fighting is described and death results (and questions followed, like what is a bayonet, and why did they cut his head off). What happens is that Tim gets to see the killing from both sides. He aligns himself with the Tories because he thinks the Patriots had something to do with his father’s death; then, he sees the Tories kill his neighbors. He sees one man get his head cut off with a sword, and thinks he
“doesn’t feel much like being a Tory anymore.” (145)
He and his mother can no longer find the good or the sense in any of it. Tim’s mother is much more visceral and unforgiven:
“War turns men into animals,” (174)
she responds to Sam as he tries to explain how a man can find an excuse to make anyone into a Tory when he is hungry.
The irony for Tim’s dad and brother is that they fall at the hands of those to whom they were loyal. Tim’s dad, Life, was ambushed by thieves while returning from Ver Plancks Point to sell his cattle and buy the necessary provisions for his tavern. Later on the family finds out he died on a British prison ship. Sam is fortunate enough to be stationed in Redding, but this works against him in the end as he abandons his post (not in a true sense), to visit his mom and brother and then is set-up as a cow thief. General Putnam wants to make an example of him in order to discourage thievery and desertion. His loyalty to the American Revolutionary Army means nothing to the General in need of an example; he is eventually sentenced and executed.
It seemed for my daughter, the most intense scene was when Tim tried to save his brother. She did not want him to get hurt, and definitely did not want him to put himself in a dangerous situation. She even yelled out for him not to do it when he ran towards a guard and threw his bayonet over the fence into the prison area. Tim was steady and growing sensible. He could see behind the clinging to ideology that was showing itself as less a responsible act and more of an intention to suit a desire that was not as honorable as it was argued to be.
The executions were handled quickly in the book, but I did need to explain a little about what was happening. The story ends with an upbeat epilogue, and then another short chapter on how much of the book was true.
Overall, it was a good book to read, not only about the confusion as to picking sides in a war, but also a good look at growing-up and becoming an adult.
My fourth grade teacher could never have known what her impact was going to be by simply deciding to read to us. The book she choose was risky for its difficult subject, and treatment of war. It was not something the other classes did, and something, I’m sure, that was not recommended by any testing organization as a way to improve test scores, and increase school ratings. What did it improve? I would say that it probably encouraged a love of reading. It also made me want to share that love with others. Most of all, though, it was the connection she made with us by taking the time to do something less mundane than a worksheet and that went way beyond the limited scope of testing, measurement and comparison. She made us feel that we mattered. We mattered enough to be read to, and we mattered enough to stop and just be. We mattered enough not to be told we had to listen because we were going to be tested and ranked. We simply mattered, and the payoff, if it came, would always be unknown to my fourth grade teacher.