Collier, J., & Collier, C. (1974). My brother Sam is dead. New York, NY: Scholastic
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James and Christopher Collier is a fictionalized account of the very real horrors of the American Revolution. The most unique aspect of this work lies in the fact that it champions neither side as right or wrong; the main character is neither dedicated to American patriotism nor British loyalty. It merely seeks to show the deadly cost of war through a story that is very relatable to young adolescents. While this story is a fictionalized account, it still serves to connect students to the ideas of war and bloodshed present throughout the Revolution.
The storyline of this young adult novel follows Tim, a young adolescent who is touched by the war in a very real way. Though his father is loyal to the British Crown, his primary concern is to avoid war and the loss of innocent lives at all costs. Tim’s older brother Sam on the other hand, speaks and acts boldly in the name of American freedom and patriotism. James and Christopher Collier explore this aspect of war exquisitely. Though Tim is bombarded by the starkly contrasting ideas of his brother and father, he concludes neither side as inherently right in the end. He expresses his opinions, questions, and qualms in a very understandable way throughout the story. Initially, he states that both his brother and his father sound right when they talk about the Revolution; he doesn’t know which side to take because they both have legitimate concerns. Towards the end of the novel however, Tim’s life becomes irrevocably marred by the ugliness of war; he looses those that are closest to him, and he is forced to grow up faster than he ever imagined. Concluding the story, Tim states that he still doesn’t think either side is right. He takes neither side in the end because the killing and bloodshed don’t seem to rationalize either argument for or against the Revolution. Like his father, Tim finally wishes and wonders if the issues present during the American Revolution could not have been solved in a different manner. This is an important lesson for young adolescents to learn because as they travel throughout the story with Tim, they experience his loss and suffering. This lets them “experience” the hardship of war without actually going through it. This teaches the lesson that aggression is not the best way to solve problems, and by the time most people realize this, it is usually too late.
Though I usually do not enjoy historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed Colliers’ work. It is usually difficult for me to get excited about historical fiction because it is so real. My favorite genres of novels include science fiction and fantasy elements; it can be difficult for me to maintain my focus reading a historical or fictionalized historical account simply because it is not my reading preference. Many people might also argue that historical fiction has nothing much to offer in an educational setting. Very few facts are taught in the book, and the story being read is not a true account. However, just because I don’t personally enjoy this genre, does not mean it is inherently value-less. While I have a difficult time getting excited to read these types of novels, I still see so much merit and value in them; they definitely have a place in the classroom. My students might personally enjoy reading them in their leisure time which is reason enough for me to keep informed and educated in this genre. Also, reading historical fiction can connect students to that specific period in time in a way that learning about it from a textbook cannot. Especially in the case of My Brother Sam Is Dead, the reader can easily identify with a young protagonist that is about their age. They can identify with many of his universal struggles growing up, and it can easy for them to understand his thoughts about mature subjects such as war. Not only does it connect them and possibly inspire them to further explore this area of history, but it also teaches them important lessons about the war. It teaches them how costly it was, and what life really was like during revolutionary wartime. It also teaches them the most important lesson about the war: neither side was inherently “right” or “wrong”. Since we live in America, the picture often gets skewed. All the wars that we teach our students about in history classes were inherently “right” simply because we live in the United States. Colliers’ My Brother Sam Is Dead, however, teaches the important, anti-egocentric idea that neither side of the conflict was inherently right or wrong; it simply happened. The novel goes on to portray the cause and effect of the actions taken at that time.
While historical fiction is personally not my favorite genre, I still find a great wealth of value and knowledge found within the pages of such books. My Brother Sam Is Dead by James and Christopher Collier is one of these great, valuable novels. Not only does it connect students to this time in history in a relatable way, but it teaches important lessons about the conflicts of the Revolutionary War which are still pertinent to war and conflict today.