“Though of late I struggle under heavy burdens, I daily rejoice at where I find myself. When I left you, it seemed as though fate had me in the straits; there was nowhere I could turn. Yet now I am through those narrows. Jennie — I never imagined how freedom would feel.” (from a letter to Jennie Newcomb, Deborah’s/Robert’s close friend in Middleborough, p. 130)
I stumbled across Alex Myers’ novel Revolutionary at Elliot Bay Book Company a few months after I had read about it in Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States. Revolutionary is based on the life of Deborah Samson Gannett. Deborah served in the Continental Army as Robert Shurtliff during the American Revolutionary War. It’s one of those novels that I wish had existed when I studied US History in school and in college. It tells the story of a woman who bucked conventional gender roles to live as genuinely as possible.
Deborah Samson was a rare untethered woman in a world of indentured servitude and family obligations. As a child, her mother sent her off from home to work in a wealthier household. The story opens on an adult Samson, weaving fabric in the tavern where she also lived. In order to escape punishment for an earlier attempt to enlist in the Continental Army, Samson flees, but not before leaving word with and gathering supplies from her close friend Jennie Newcomb. The road ahead is full of obstacles: physical discomforts, hostile soldiers, and the fear of discovery. However, Samson/Shurtliff also experiences the warmth of comrades who share similar hopes and fears; the exhilaration of disarming enemy combatants; and the thrill of adventure.
Aside from the fascinating tale itself, I found myself drawn to the way in which Alex Myers uses pronouns. The duality of pronouns reminds the reader of the two worlds in which Samson/Shurtliff inhabits. Physically born into the female gendered realm, Samson rebels against social expectations of the 18th century concerning who she should be and what she should do. Myers use of pronouns enhances the moments in which the readers see Robert Shurtliff stride confidently across a field and later charging at an enemy soldier with a bayonet. We see how Robert swells with pride when one of his commanding officers declares “That soldier is a man”, following an ambush by enemy troops. Weaving at the tavern in Middleborough, we see Deborah as she. Deborah is Robert and Robert is Deborah. As Deborah, she is expected to get married and tend to a family. As Robert, he gains the admiration of his fellow soldiers and commanding officers, discovering the freedoms and limitations that come with being perceived as a male.
Although Deborah later settled into a more typical domestic arrangement after the war, it did not prevent her from seeking her military pension and telling her story onstage. She did not forget her story and neither should we.
If you’d like to learn more, dig into resources listed below.You can buy this book online, offline, or borrow it from your local library.
Further Reading on the historical Deborah Samson Gannett/Robert Shurtliff
- “Deborah Sampson. How She Served as a Soldier in the Revolution—Her Sex Unknown to the Army.” (PDF). New York Times. 1898-10-08. Retrieved 2015-04-22.
- Massachusetts Historical Society
- Masquerade by Alfred F. Young
- America’s First Woman Warrior by Lucy Freeman and Alma Pond (1992)
- Bronski, Michael (2011). A Queer History of the United States. Xxx: Beacon Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0807044650.
- American Revolution.org
- Deborah Samson.com
- Deborah Sampson – Britannica
- Deborah Sampson – Teacher Link
Author: Alex Myers
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Author Website: alexmyerswriting.com
Publisher’s Author Page: authors.simonandschuster.com/Alex-Myers