The team of James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier won thousands of readers and multiple awards in the 60s and 70s for their fiction and nonfiction works. James Collier, trained as a journalist, shaped stories such as the Newberry honorable mention My Brother Sam Is Dead
(1974) while his brother Christopher Collier, a trained historian, supplied realistic and comprehensive information on matters like the US revolutionary war.My Brother Sam Is Dead
is one of their most famous collaborations. It follows a teenaged Tim as he chooses whether to align himself with the British (whom his father supports) or the revolutionaries (supported by his brother, Sam).
Its enduring themes include heated father-son relationships, the inhumanity of war, and the illogical cruelty of dogmatic political positions.
The story is told in first person from the point of view
of Tim Meeker. One rainy April day, Tim describes his brother coming to the family’s place of business, a tavern, announcing that the rebels have won against the British in Massachusetts. Sam is wearing the rebel uniform that Tim cannot help but admire; he also admires all the facts and theories he picked up as a college student at Yale.
Sam’s rebel sentiments quickly earn a rebuke from his father. His father cannot understand why his son would turn against the King. Despite his father’s protests, Sam explains to everyone at the tavern that the Minutemen (local soldiers) surprised the lobsterbacks (a mocking name for British soldiers) at the Battle of Lexington. Sam enjoys the attention his news receives. His father asks who fired the first shot, and Sam admits he doesn’t know.
The farmers and the minister, Mr. Beach, take Sam’s father’s side and say fewer deaths are worth higher taxes. Sam says it is the principle of British overreach that keeps him fighting. His father bangs on the table until everyone is silent.
Once everyone has eaten, Tim visits Old Pru, the family’s cow. After some prodding from their mother, Sam agrees to help milk the cow, even though his uniform may get dirty.
Nonchalantly, Tim asks about girls, alcohol, and Sam’s true feelings on the war. Sam says he has only returned home to steal his father’s gun nicknamed, Brown Bess. Tim keeps his promise not to reveal this intention to their father.
Late at night, Tim wakes up to Sam and his father arguing. His father says he does not want his son to suffer the fate he did serving in previous wars, and orders him to give up the rebel cause or leave the house. Sam leaves the house, and his father weeps privately.
The next morning, Tim talks about the religious life in Redding. The town is Anglican and thus considered to be loyalists. Tim does not know which side to choose. He finds Sam hiding in a hut and tries to talk him out of going to the war. Sam is with his girlfriend, Betsy Read. When she asks which side Tim supports, he is silent and unsure.
Several months pass until Betsy tells Tim that his brother is back in town. Soon after, Rebel soldiers enter the Meeker home. They demand the father’s gun, which the father cannot supply because Sam took it; Tim promises to get it and runs to Sam’s hideout. He meets Sam, and the two return home to find that their parents, though shaken, are not dead.
Months later, Mr. Heron asks Tim to deliver a package of letters. Tim’s father forbids it but Tim, craving adventure, does it anyway. Clandestinely, he walks through town when Betsy Read sees him. She steals and opens a letter, thinking it has intelligence on Sam; she is disappointed when it does not.
In the summer of 1776, Tim joins his father on a business trip to Verplancks Point. He meets his cousins, whom he likes, but father and son are harassed by a gang of cowboys. They pay them off, but then are kidnapped by other Rebel cowboys further along the trail. Tim is able to outwit them and bring the merchandise back home, but he is shaken to his core. With this trip, he has suddenly become the man of the house.
In the spring of 1777, Tim is horrified when British soldiers murder hundreds of people in Redding, including some of his friends. Despite this, Tim does not know where he stands: the British are looting his town but the rebels have kidnapped his father. Tim reunites with Sam after the British troops leave Redding. Sam tells him that he has chosen to reenlist.
In June of 1777, Tim learns that his father died as a prisoner on a ship. Tim steps up his management of the tavern, taking the lead on trading decisions and maintaining financial ledgers. He dislikes the dogmatic nature of both sides.
Tim and his mother discuss what to do with eight cows they have received through business transactions. Tim wants to make a profit from them, but Sam advises him to kill the cows and hide the meat to prevent cattle theft, a major problem with the military.
While Tim deliberates, two men break into the barn to steal the cows. Sam stops them, but the men arrest him and frame him for the theft. General Putnam is fed up with cattle thefts and is set on making an example of somebody -- anybody. He is mute to Tim and his mother’s testimonies of Sam’s innocence. Tim tries, but fails, to enter Sam’s holding cell to save him. In February 1779, Tim yells, “don’t shoot him,” as a squad fires at Sam’s bagged head.
In the epilogue, it is forty-seven years after Sam’s death. Tim reports that he is happy with his family in Pennsylvania. After Sam was shot, Tim moved, along with his mother, to open another tavern. She died of old age, and told all her grandchildren about Sam’s bravery and fortitude.
Tim still questions whether the US had to be founded on so much bloodshed.