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My Brother Sam Is Dead

My Brother Sam Is Dead - James Lincoln Collier, Christopher Collier I hadn't thought about this book in thirty years, but I saw it in Barnes and Noble last week, and was wondering whether it is too advanced for my nephew, who is seven. Probably. I know I read it in 5th grade (so that's more like 10 years old, right?). I don't remember big chunks of the story, just a few main points I'll discuss below, but what I remember well is the purchase of the book, and some vague impressions the story left me with... So yeah, it's going to be one of those reviews again. If you want any substantive discussion of the book and its merits, move on to the next review, because the rest of this sucker is going to be me subjecting y'all to my nostalgic waxings about random things only tenuously connected to this book, if at all. I bought this book when I was in fifth grade. My elementary school went from K-5 (I think some go to 6, but ours only went to 5), so I was among the oldest kids in the school. This was one of the few books at our school's "book fair" which didn't seem childish to me. A book fair- in case you didn't know- was basically when they filled up the gymnasium with tables of cheap books, and let the kids loose to buy them, hoping that a love of reading might spontaneously emerge as a side effect of our blossoming and unrelenting consumerism. I don't know how the school came across the books so cheap.. was it some book distributor unloading inventory he couldn't sell? I can imagine selling at a loss to a public school would have to result in some sort of tax write off. It was 1978, so Star Wars was still going strong with the kiddies, and I was no exception. I was doing everything I could in my little 5th grade income bracket to push George Lucas higher on the Forbe's list of young (then) millionaires. Amidst all this Star Wars craze, our teacher had the good sense to tell my class before the book fair: "If you buy any books, you must buy at least one non-Star Wars book". So once I had a few Star Wars books, I started walking around, looking for my one non-Star Wars book. Most of the books at the fair were for younger kids, and didn't interest me much, but then I spotted my brother Sam is dead. The cover art had a picture of a kid with a gun, running away in the night from shadowy figures, which seemed kind of cool. And I must admit: I was very taken with the edgy, subversive refusal of the publisher to capitalize "my" in the title. (karen is edgy and subversive in this way too, which is why I am taken with her as well). So I bought the book. Here's what I remember about it:It is somewhere in New England, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The narrator's older brother (Sam) joins the war, on the side of independence, which totally freaks out the rest of the family, who are British loyalists. That was kind of cool to me- the idea of the brother asserting his own independence like that within the family.. something which was pretty much unthinkable to me at that age. Even the idea of having informed and independent thoughts about anything going on in the world seemed very adult and far-off. I can remember back about the time I was reading this book, some heated (relatively speaking, not all that heated in absolute terms) discussion at a family gathering about some political thing... and I just remember thinking to myself that it must be cool to not be totally clueless about the world and history, and actually have an idea or opinion about things like who you want to be President in the next election, etc. It seemed like it must make life more exciting and dramatic, because my family was very much blue-collar right-wing Republican stock, so I grew up hearing a lot of bits and pieces of conversation about the Communists in VietNam, and then when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they of course went crazy over that... from afar, it all seemed very exciting.. like tuning into the nightly news to hear about Afghanistan (and also the hostages in Iran) was akin to tuning into AM sports radio to hear about how the Buffalo Bills were doing against our favorite villains (the ones you love to hate): the Miami Dolphins. Naturally, some of these family tendencies became embarrassing later on, like when a cousin declared to the family that he wished America had nuked VietNam back to the Stone Age.. and then turned to my (Japanese) wife and told her "No offense intended."But I'm going off on tangents now. my brother Sam is dead seemed very adult to me, back when I read it. There was a decapitation somewhere in the story, although I don't remember who or why, but that too seemed to suggest that this was sophisticated and gritty in a way that other of my books weren't. The other thing I remember about this book is that the older brother, Sam, quit college at Yale to join the war. At that age, I didn't have any sense that Yale was a prestigous institution, with all its attendant connotations of elitism and priviliege. The tragedy being communicated here (unsuccessfully to me, at age 10) was that Sam laid down his life for the revolution, when he could have enjoyed a life of ease and plenty if he had just sat back and supported the British with the rest of his family. Naturally that makes his sacrifice all the more meaningful to those of us who enjoy the benefits of the American Constitution, and independence from the British crown. Oh well... I guess I missed the point of a lot of stuff at that age. In fact, one thing I do remember well was that our garage door had a lock on it which said YALE in big letters (Yale being a lock manufacturer with no ties to the university ,[Reference])... so when I read about Sam at Yale, I thought he might be studying locksmithing or some other lock-related profession. As I kept reading on, I expected that this very prominently-dropped piece of information was going to make its way into the story... like maybe at some crucial scene, Sam would pick a lock or crack a safe to steal secret British documents that would save the day for the revolution. Imagine my disappointment when that never happened.Well, that's about all I have to say about this book. Thanks for taking this walk with me down memory lane.