Myers’ debut, a novel based upon the true life of a woman who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, illuminates questions about gender equality and identity.
In 1782, former indentured servant Deborah Sampson yearns to experience the freedoms that fall only to men, so she dons male attire and enlists in the Continental Army. After her original attempt to become a soldier is foiled, she tries once again, this time stealing away to a different town and adopting her deceased brother’s name, Robert Shurtliff, as her own. Worried about revealing his secret, Robert works harder than most to master military drills, and he’s proud when he and three other recruits are chosen for West Point’s light infantry. He shares a tent with Tobias, a fellow book lover who excels with a needle and thread, young runaway Matthew and good-natured James, who teaches Robert how to spit. As the recruits learn to care for their muskets, shoot at targets and march in formation, Robert revels in his treatment as an equal and begins to react intuitively to situations as a man. (The author cleverly illustrates the transition through the interchange of feminine and masculine pronouns.) He sporadically writes to his childhood friend Jennie, who keeps him informed about events back home. Robert’s military service is marked by hardships: long treks, constant fear of discovery, others’ traitorous acts, brutal clashes on the battlefield and heart-rending loss; but he also experiences contentment: unconditional love from another, the regiment’s spirit of camaraderie, acceptance by men as a person of value (which he believes was lacking when he went about life as a woman) and bravery on the battlefield. Myers’ excellent research and skilled writing combine to create an absorbing story with an interesting protagonist and topics worth contemplating. The author presents a time in early American history when the social and legal ramifications of being born a woman or being transgender meant suffering in anonymity. Has anything changed?
A fine debut.