Thursday, July 6, 2017
July 6, 2017: Representing the Revolution: YA Novels
[For this year’s July 4th series, I’ll be AmericanStudying cultural representations of the Revolution and its era. Leading up to a special post on Hamilton!]
On three groundbreaking historical novels that reflect the evolution of young adult literature.
1) Johnny Tremain (1943): Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal-winning novel follows its title character from his life in 1773 as a 14 year old silversmith’s apprentice (a career cut short when he suffers a debilitating hand injury early in the novel) through his gradual connection to the Sons of Liberty and participation in the Boston Tea Party (among other events), building to a climax set against the April 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord. Although Forbes creates Johnny’s 1770s Boston with depth and nuance, there’s never any doubt that the Sons are on the right side of history, a thread that likewise climaxes in the novel’s concluding section with a moving speech from James Otis (whom the other Sons had often dismissed as an insane old man) about the Revolutionary sacrifices that will be necessary and appropriate so “that a man can stand up.” Johnny Tremain is, let’s say, a Revolutionary historical novel for the Greatest Generation era.
2) My Brother Sam is Dead (1974): James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier’s Newbery Honor-winning (and National Book Award nominated!) novel offers a far more murky and (often) dark vision of the Revolution. The narrator, Tim Meeker, is torn between his loyalist father and Continental Army soldier brother in the early years of the Revolution; while we might expect transformations or reunions from a young adult novel, instead Tim’s father is abducted by pirates and dies of cholera on a prison ship, one of Tim’s friends is decapitated by the British, and Sam is eventually executed by the Continental Army (for stealing cattle, a crime for which he had been framed). This is a world where not only are loyalties divided and choices uncertain, but death and brutality seem to await regardless of what choices one makes; when Tim reveals in the conclusion that he has been writing the book from 1826, his survival seems to be the novel’s version of a happy ending. My Brother Sam is Dead is, let’s say, a Revolutionary historical novel for the Vietnam War and Watergate era.
3) The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (2006): M.T. Anderson’s National Book Award-winning novel, the first in a two-volume series (the second, The Kingdom on the Waves, was published in 2009), is the story of a uniquely talented African American slave in Revolutionary Boston who finds himself and his mother used (and she killed) for social and medical experiments on race, escapes slavery and joins the Continental Army, and eventually (in the course of the series) joins the British forces in Virginia instead due to his opposition to American slavery. The novels wed Gothic tropes (Octavian’s Boston home is very much a Gothic haunted house, for example) to revisionist histories (his Massachusetts slaveowners are in league with Virginia planters to pursue their racist agenda, complicating our narratives of both American slavery and the Revolution), with the result a historical fantasy that imagines a far different nation and world than either of the prior novels had. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is, let’s say, a Revolutionary historical novel for the multicultural and Obama era.
Next Revolutionary representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary representations you’d highlight?