In 1782, it was illegal for a woman to dress as a man in Massachusetts. Deborah Samson, the 22-year-old heroine of Alex Myers’s literary novel, not only dresses as a man but fights as a soldier during the American Revolutionary War.
Deborah, a former indentured servant in Middleborough, is a skilled weaver who also works in a tavern. She envies the men she serves for their freedom. When George Washington sends out a call for troops, she wants to go. “To join up, yes, and serve—but more: to get away, to be free,” she thinks.
Her first attempt at enlisting as a male soldier fails, prompting her to flee. The second time around, she succeeds in enlisting as Robert Shurtliff. She picks the name in honor of her dead baby brother. It’s the beginning of her adventure, struggles, and lessons, but also joy and freedom.
Deborah learns how to march, shoot, and even how to spit like a man. She’s always vigilant while changing clothes, urinating, bathing, and in countless other things that could potentially give her away. She befriends three fellow soldiers. She falls in love with one of them, while another turns out to be a traitor.
Deborah is an excellent soldier, exhibiting courage on the battlefield. One of her biggest rewards is hearing her sergeant describe her this way: “That soldier is a man.”
Sometimes the book refers to the protagonist as Deborah and sometimes as Robert, which can be confusing because of the shifting pronouns. However, the style is necessary because the character thinks of herself as both Deborah and Robert. Toward the end of the book, after her true identity is revealed, her superior tells her the country needs strong women as much as strong men. Deborah answers: “I am glad, then, to say that I have been both.”
This historical novel is extraordinary in many ways. It’s based on a true story. The real Deborah Samson served in the Continental Army as a man and was honored for her bravery. Myers, a distant relative, is a female-to-male transgender. All of these make for interesting anecdotes, but “Revolutionary” stands on its own as a well-researched and well-written novel with a strong heroine who readily earned my admiration as much as my sympathy. This is a great read for lovers of historical fiction.