James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier: My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974)

My Brother Sam is Dead is a historical children’s book set during the American Revolutionary War. I didn’t really want to read a children’s book but it seems there are a great deal of novels for children and young adults on this period and hardly any literary fiction at all (Please, correct me if I’m wrong). I thought I had found a few literary novels but every time I looked at a book more closely it turned out to be a novel on the Civil War.

The Colliers are brothers and have written quite a lot of books for children together. While Christopher does the research and writes down the structure of the books, James writes the novels.

It’s a well written book but very clearly for children and meant to teach history. It’s quite educational and very anti-war, something which, oddly enough, has been criticized. American patriots, to this day, seem to think that it’s ok to go to war as long as the goal is freedom. Freedom is certainly worth fighting for but, as the Colliers exemplify, it will always be better to see if there are no other options.

In order to show the different positions, they created a conflict inside of one family. The Meekers own a tavern in Redding, a Tory town. The older son, Sam, is about 16 and in college, the younger, Tim, is only 10 at the beginning of the novel. When the novel opens, Sam and his father get into a fight because Sam joins the Patriot troops and wants to fight the “lobsterbacks” – the English. Sam’s father is against this. He doesn’t see why they should fight the King and his troops. Young Timmy is somewhere in-between. He admires his brother but he also loves his father and respects his opinion.

The main reason for the outbreak of the war, as presented in the novel, is that the colonials feel it is unjust that they have to pay such high taxes to England. They want this to stop and become free.

After his dispute with his father, Sam runs away and joins the troops. The novel then focusses on the remaining Meekers and shows how difficult it was for families to survive and to stay out of the conflict. The war soon invades everything. They were attacked by Patriots, British troops got all their food. Staying neutral was suspicious.

I don’t want to tell too much of the story as it’s a short book and there are a few tragic events which shouldn’t be revealed here. Obviously the title contains a spoiler but it will still be surprising to find out how Sam died.

I liked reading this, it’s quite atmospherical and think captures well what it must have been like for families to live during that time. The Collier’s position, which becomes clear when you read the book and which is shown in some quite ironic moments, is that they are not sure whether the war was really needed. They seem to think that there might have been other solutions for the colony to become independent.

The book contains background information on the story and the characters, some events and people were real, some were not. It also contains an interview with one of the brothers. All this together makes this an interesting book, not a literary gem but nicely executed and informative. In some ways you could even call it a cautionary tale.

I’d like to end the review with a  quote taken from the interview with Charles Collier.

I want a reader to understand the complicatedness of the Revolutionary War. Maybe there was as much bad as good that came of it, especially if one considers the Meekers. I think any book that deals honestly with war will be antiwar, because any book that glorifies war isn’t telling the truth.

The review is a contribution to Anna’s and Serena’s American Revolution Reading Challenge. Please visit their site for other reviews or if you’d like to join  as well.

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47 thoughts on “James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier: My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974)

  1. I had never heard of this but for a children’s book. It sounds as if is a surpassingly deep and accurate portrayal.

    The reason that I say this is that on the local level, the American Revolution was brutal and savage with horrendous atrocities committed on both sides. Patriots, loyalists as well as Native American groups were at each other’s throats. Murder and pillage were rampart.

    As for people criticizing a book because it is anti — war; that is such as silly and extremist view. Sadly I encounter it on a regular basis these days.

    • They managed to capture the intense violence very well without being too graphic. For a family who wanted to stay out of everything, it must have been really hard. So much violence death and hunger.
      I think the Colliers wanted to remind people of that and that freedom came at a very high price.

  2. The story conjures “The Patriot” (2000), the script of which could well have been influenced by this book, though no credit is given at IMDB.

    • Yes, it certianly does, although it’s a bit different, as far as I remember the young son dies right in the beginning of The Patriot but it still reminded me as well.

  3. The only novels that I’ve read about the Revolutionary War are Johhny Tremain and Celia Garth. It’s been decades since I read them, so don’t remember a thing. That last quote is a good one.

    • I thought Id’ found one but it was a diary from the Civil War.
      The mpressio I get is that there are either non-fiction books or books for kids on that period.
      I would have liked to read another one but maybe I’ll wait and see what others read.

  4. How interesting! I love the idea of using childrens’ books to teach as well as to entertain. I saw an exhibit of Georgia O’keefe’s early paintings this week. There is a children’s book about her life, and it was so popular that it was sold out of the museum gift shop (Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey.) I suppose that means that many people agree with you.

    • That’s a great idea, an artist’s biography for children. The Collier’s say in the afterwoord that what motivated them was the fact that children forgot all the history they were taught, if they couldn’t relate to it and in creating a charcater lie Timmy, they created a character with whom they could identify.

  5. Nice review, Caroline! I have also never seen or heard of novels which are based on the Revolutionary war. This looks like quite an interesting book. I loved what Charles Collier said about war books being anti-war. Actually when I think about it, I haven’t seen many movies based on the Revolutionary war, either. The only one I can remember is ‘The Patriot’ starring Mel Gibson. Thanks for writing about this interesting book.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m glad you found it interesting. I quite enjoyed it. The Patriot is the only movie I have seen, but I think there is a John Ford movie on the American Revolution. I can just not remember the title right now.
      I saw another children’s book “Just Jane” which sounded very good. I might read it some day.

  6. I allow my students to read this for extra credit but have never read it myself. Thanks for the review. Another that I allow from this period is “Ruffles and Drums”. Also “The Winter Hero”. I highly recommend “April Morning” by Howard Fast. It is a little more adult. My Honors class used to read that one.

    By the way, although there were atrocities by both sides in the Southern Colonies along the frontier, it is an exaggeration to say the Revolutionary War “was brutal and savage with horrendous atrocities committed on both sides. Patriots, loyalists as well as Native American groups were at each other’s throats. Murder and pillage were rampart.” For instance, there were no church-burning incidents like in “The Patriot”.

    • I know you mentioned April Morning, I have to consider it. I bought this one on a whim. It’s readabl but, not very adult.
      I remember you saying The Patriot was not very accurate, was it?
      The Colliers are clearly anti-war but I think they did stick to the facts.

  7. Interesting book…but I think I am on the side of people who think war is important for freedom. I live in a used to be colonialized country…the racism was just to apparant and it pained me to learn that many Indonesian weren’t allowed to study at that time…keeping people in stupidity is just wrong.

    we might not be a great country but I am proud with the fact that we are a country of our own, no other country rules us.

    I know war is not a good thing for both side but would you let other people take your home without a fight?

    So I quite understand why some people critized the book

    • You certainly have a point and unfortunately it’s not analysed how they could have achieved freedom without this war.
      It’s different as those fighting against the British were of British origin as well, just born in the US. It’s something else when an foreign country invadeds and occupies another one.
      But, as said, I don’t know how else they could have achieved their freedom.

      • I have the same question as Novia regarding the French Revolution. The Terror is NOT forgivable and was unnecessary but the initial fights, destroying the Bastille and all? Not sure they could have reached their goal without a fight. I don’t think the ruling class was ready to share their power.

        • I certainly agree. I’m just not familia enough with the American Revolution to know whether the cases are comparable.
          I think the authors’ biggest problem was that the war was used by many as a cover for theft and violence.

  8. It hadn’t occurred to be before that there are no adult literary novels with the revolutionary war as the backdrop. Most seem to fall in the genre category: mystery or romance. I wonder why that is. Maybe this is an opening for a novelist who wants to tackle the subject. :)

    What a poignant quote from the author at the end!

    • I’m more than a little astonished by it but the longer I look the less I think there are a lot of adult novels. The Cvil War seems way more attractive. $
      I find that quote great.

  9. That’s a nice way to teach history, provided that it sticks to facts. (which this book seems to do)

    Looking for freedom because they were paying too much taxes? Scratch a noble idea a bit and you’ll always find greed and money under the nice paint…

  10. Caroline,
    This children’s historical novel classic is not read as often as in days past, though my college Children’s Lit students (future teachers) like it very much. During its day, the book was sometimes banned and often challenged by parents in the U.S. for its supposedly overly graphic portrayal of hand-to-hand combat. As a read for middle-school students (ages 11-14), it was not alway recommended.

    But, as a former middle-school teacher, I deem it quite appropriate for young people to know that war involves intense emotions and ideals, killing, and blood. After all, for this age group, they may face a combat situation in 6-8 years. So, yes, I think they are old enough to deal with these issues.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Thanks, for this, Judith.
      I read a few reviews by parents who were shocked because there was swearing and violence. It seems that there are even two versions available now. It didn’t seem too graphic to me, maybe I’ve read the purified version.
      I liked it, I’m sure I would have enjoyed being taught history in this manner.
      Christopher Collier mentions that they wrote this having 8th graders in mind but the American Revolution was taught much earlier, but he still believes, they can handle it.

  11. Caroline, I have heard that there is a novel called The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper which is set during the revolution. It’s available for free download. That might help you in this challenge.:)

  12. I am not pro-war at all. However, I do wish the authors explored how the colonies could have freed themselves without going to war. I’m not saying that they couldn’t have, but I haven’t heard of too many alternatives. In college I wrote a paper saying that the American Revolutionary war wasn’t that revolutionary since the power was removed from one white controlling class in Britain to the elites in America. Not a lot of freedoms were given to the average American citizen and of course slavery was still rampant. This sounds like an interesting read.

    • I would have wished for an exploration of alternatives as well. I like the anti-war message but like Novia pointed out, it may be extreme considerig the case. That’s an interesting point you make about the average citizen not becoming free. Ir the slaves. I think that may be the reason why the appeal of the Civil War is much greater for novelists.

      • Not trying to play devil’s advocate, but the civil war was not started over the issue of slavery. It was economics. The north had the money and factories, the south as agricultural. At first Lincoln didn’t believe that blacks were equal. However, his opinion changed and he grew. That’s one of the reasons I admire him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was willing to learn and to see the other side. You don’t see that in American politics these days. And I did remember two novels about the American Revolution that I enjoyed by Jeff Shaara. One is The Glorious Cause and the other is Rise to Rebellion. Shaara’s father wrote the Pulitzer prize novel: The Killer Angels (a Civil War novel :)) Not sure if you discovered these yet. And I feel a little better knowing I’ve read some historical fiction from this time period.

        • No, I hadn’t heard of the novels. I know the Killer Angels. I’ll put there on my wish list.
          To be honest, I had no idea what started the Civil War, I just know that slavery issues are often in the center of books and movies.

          • Well, my answer was pretty simplistic about the start of the war. many, many, many books have been written on it. And yes, slavery should be part of any history involving this time period. It was a horrific part of history and should not be forgotten. Have you seen the movie Glory with Denzel Washington. I liked that one. And there was a TV series called Gettysburg with Martin Sheen that was terrific. I’ll have to think about movies about the Revolutionary War–Only one that comes to mind is The Patriot with Mel Gibson.

            • I’ve seen both movies but I like Glory much better. Another Civil War movie which I find stunning is Ride With the Devil. The Patriot is Ok but it seems they took a lot of liberties.

              • I love Glory. Makes me cry each time. I haven’t seen Ride with the Devil. I need to track that one down. The Patriot is more about the special effects really–at least in my opinion. It’s an entertaining action film, but I wouldn’t take it seriously in regards to historical accuracy.

                • I love Ride with the Devil and it has fantastic elements on slavery. It’s the most originla, I know some didn’t like that but i thought it was really something special.
                  The Patriot is typical Hollywood, a guitly pleasure.

    • Negotiating with or appeasing outside aggression is simply dangerous and suicidal. Britain had tried it, as had Poland, Russia and others — and history tells what happened to each during the course of WWII. Throughout history, rolling over to aggression only produced tyrannical empires. Wherever you find someone who won’t or can’t stand ground, aggression always takes root, be it among nations, schoolyards or social units. In the face of overwhelming odds, colonists had no other option that could’ve produced the outcome war produced. Otherwise, all of the Americas today could well be subject to absolute rulers imposing the divine right of kings. Victory for colonists, of course, was victory for colonists only, never mind the rights of Native Americans, for example, who already had democratic parliaments where women voted on all important matters on an equal footing with men, where there was no upper class, awash in luxury, while a majority starved, where land and food were shared communally, where the few laws they had were sternly enforced. Perhaps Jack London’s Wolf Larsen expressed it well: “It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all.”

  13. I read this for a YA lit class I took, but that’s been over a decade ago now. I liked it very much and thought it well done, too. There do seem to be a lot of YA novels that explore this period and now that you mention it I can’t really think of any adult literary novels (though there may be some out there) that deal with this period. I’d like to read more about it, but I will likely read nonfiction. It certainly is a good book to use in a classroom setting to get a good discussion going.

    • We never read books for children in school. I suppose it would have been good though to be taught history like that.
      I have to go over the comments again, there were one or two adult suggestions.

  14. I appreciated this book for the same reasons you did. It gave an interesting perspective on how war tears a family apart…and on reasons why some people were loyal to England. That was a brave move, since American history books (for kids) tend to focus only on the reasons for war-and-independence.

  15. I know there are some adult fiction books on the recommended reading page on War Through the Generations (will be adding more titles to that page soon), but I don’t know how literary they are. I tend to turn to middle grade books when reading about wars I know very little about, and there are some really well written ones out there that even adults can enjoy. Ann Rinaldi’s novels come to mind right away.

      • You might be right about that. I can’t remember the last book I read about the Revolutionary War, and that’s sad! I’m reading one right now that I thought was going to be historical fiction about spies, but it turns out that it’s romance and sex with some war and spy stuff thrown in. Ugh. But at least it’s not bad, just not what I was expecting.

        • At least, as you say, it’s not bad.
          I’m surprised that the Revolutionary War is so far less populatr among writers than the Civil War. Once you start to pay attention, it becomes obvious that most books are YA.

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