Born to be Brave

  • What: Revolutionary
  • Who: Alex Myers
  • Pages: 307, soft cover
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Published: 2014
  • The lit: 1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px of 5 flames

I came across Revolutionary thanks to my friend Katie (a fellow cat lover) who sent me the following text after an invitation to an event:

“I figured Revolutionary history, novels, and wine might me up your alley.”

It didn’t matter what this was regarding. I was going to be interested no matter what. Katie had found that the New-York Historical Society was hosting an event with author Alex Myers who wrote a novel about Revolutionary War veteran Deborah Samson. You read that right; indeed, the name Deborah and Revolutionary War were in the same sentence.

I had actually heard about Deborah Samson a few years ago after a visit to Philadelphia and was intrigued by the woman who masqueraded as a man to fight for our nation’s freedom. I always imagined her as someone who fought for women’s right and to break down walls. The event with Myers, though, was about transgender identity. Sure, my original assumptions about this patriot still applied, but was there another story here? Something I had never considered before? I was about to find out.


Yes, that is my very own tricorn.

With the Revolutionary War coming to an end in 1782 and with independence on the horizon, Deborah Samson wanted her own freedom. Deborah had had a rough life. Her father had abandoned her family when she was young, and her mother had been forced to send her children to different households. Deborah was sold as an indentured servant to a farmer in Middleborough, Mass. for whom she worked until she was freed at the age of 18.

She then worked as a weaver, but this was the furthest thing from a “normal” life for women of her age. Most would have already been married by the time they hit their 20s. If not — and at which point you were certainly bound to be an eternal spinster — you remained in your parents’ home. Deborah, however, lived independently and had opinions that she didn’t keep to herself, and this led to judgment and weariness from her fellow townspeople.

Wanting more from her life, as well as an escape from the small mindedness of the locals, Deborah joined the the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment in 1782 under the guise of Robert Shurtliff. For two years, she fought in small squabbles next to men who had weaker constitutions and lesser courage than she. When she was wounded in the thigh, for example, she extracted the bullet herself to avoid her sex being discovered by doctors.

“All the traits that had been sources of complaint — willfulness, ambition, independence — when he lived as a woman had led to his success as a soldier.” — Revolutionary

She was honorably discharged from the military in 1783 — as a man — and returned to Massachusetts where she started living as a woman yet again. Despite getting married and having children, Deborah returned to her past by eventually telling her story. Through a lecture series to help pay off her husband’s debt, Deborah told audiences about her life as a disguised patriot — as a woman who pretended to be a man so she could fight for her country and for herself.

I came across Deborah’s story on the Philadelphia trip when I found a book about her at Independence Hall. I started reading it, but I never finished because it was an absolute bore of nonfiction. Now, fast-forward five years to the event this summer with Alex Myers who chose to write a fictional tale rather than take a biographical approach.

After my first attempt of reading about this inspirational woman, I was ready for some fiction to liven up Deborah’s story.

“[Love] must be not so one-sided, based not just on the respect earned, the admiration deeply sought by one party from the other. It must be mutual, shared, a union where each wanted what the other had to offer and granted it willingly.” — Revolutionary

Unfortunately, Revolutionary did not succeed. The beginning dragged, and while I appreciated the clearly researched details Myers incorporated to transport readers to that time, reading through them felt a little like walking through molasses. Yes, intrigue picked up (minimally) as the story progressed, but I kept waiting for something more. And I’m not even clear where the true climax of the story actually lay because it felt flat nearly the whole way through. I wanted so much more than what Myers was giving me in each sentence.

In the first half of the novel, I was also confused by the use of Robert versus Deborah. Even though the main character’s colleagues believed her to be a man, Deborah initially still saw herself as a woman, illustrated by the fact that her inner thoughts were always assigned to Deborah. Once one of her leaders called her a true man after the first fight, though, she began to identify with and refer to herself as Robert.

“Deborah was part of Robert; she would always be so. It was just that, for now, and for the future he could imagine, Deborah was an inconvenience, like a boil on one’s buttocks — unpleasant and unlikely to go away. If he could … it was impossible, but if he could, he would burst that boil, let all of it drain out. Even then, he thought, standing and stretching his back, there’d be a scar.” — Revolutionary

There are about 30 pages where Myers used the masculine and feminine interchangeably, and it was hard to follow. At first, this confused and distracted me. But after the main character went from 1.) Deborah/Robert to 2.) strictly Robert and then 3.) back to Deborah, the author’s intentions became clear.

And I felt like an completely unwoke ass for my initial confusion.

Myers was clearly making a point about the trans narrative and experience, which isn’t black and white nor straightforward. Myers symbolized this directly through the character’s emotions and the questions they asked themselves and indirectly through the different names and pronouns. For me, this was the most impactful and telling part of the novel.

Sadly, this is also where it became clear to me that I appreciated the message behind the story and the author who wrote it more than the storytelling itself.

Alex Myers was born and raised as a girl but never really felt right in that skin; thus, Myers transitioned to a male his senior year of high school and would fight for transgender rights after that.

Along the way, Myers learned he was a descendant of Deborah Samson. He felt a connection to her story and imagined that she too had wanted to be a man, which became the catalyst for writing Revolutionary, a novel that analyzes transgender rights — while also commenting on the unfairness of being female — during America’s birth. Yes, it’s all coming full circle here.

“Perhaps she’d discovered the corollary of her transformation: a cantankerous woman equaled a mild man.” — Revolutionary

The story behind the story is beautiful and noteworthy, but that doesn’t make a book more flameworthy. So much can be appreciated, and Myers lifts literature into a space that it hasn’t explored enough. However, he needed to combine his message and detail with excitement and color and a little bit more voice for the impact to truly resonate.


6 thoughts on “Born to be Brave

      • The story in general interested me because I was unfamiliar with Deborah as a historical figure – it was all new to me although I knew about women disguising their sex to become soldiers in a general sense. I also really liked the way she went from Deborah to Robert and back, the way her internal sense of self changed and evolved and how that was represented in the text. I was fascinated by it and I don’t remember feeling confused by the changing narration, but it has been at least 3 years since I read it. I liked it enough to pick up a copy at my local library book sale a few months ago, but I haven’t reread it since then. I might have to do that soon!


      • After I got over my initial confusion, I realized that just reflected how Deborah felt too. I think it was intentional. I’m obsessed with Revolutionary War fiction, so I wanted more color from the story. But I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! If you ever get a chance to see Alex Myers speak, definitely go.


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