Balls The Size Of Rhode Island

Alex Myers' Revolutionary is a work of historical fiction about Deborah Sampson, who, while passing as a man, fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The historical basis for the book is a remarkable enough story — in her time she became a minor celebrity and went on to serve as a proto-feminist figure in an unlikely era.

The hook here is that the author himself is transgender, lending a sort of standing on which to base the story. Indeed, Revolutionary is at its best when Myers — one assumes — draws from his experience to access the inner thoughts of someone transitioning to the opposite gender: the first inklings, the realizations, the moments when she becomes he are intimate details that usually go unseen but which are set into relief by this wonderful historical story. There's a moment somewhere between chapters seven and eight where Deborah becomes Robert in the text; there's a humanity and depth in this small difference that is elucidated by the author's biographical details. Similarly, there is a heavy and powerful moment later in the book (spoiler . . .) when Deborah's true nature is revealed to one of her fellow soldiers and the depiction of the resulting love affair transcends what you might expect had the author not been transgender; it's not only powerful but serves as a fascinating insight; my own prejudices about historical fiction circle back to the idea that depictions tend to "tell" more than "show" — in this particular moment the telling seems to work. Overall, however, the tension Revolutionary creates in portraying Deborah's incredibly fraught disguise is deft and leaves the reader continually unsettled; it's a smart, dramatic tension that stays taut until the story finally resolves.

That said, I've always had a block with reading historical fiction, and I think it has to do with not only the danger of anachronism but specifically in overlaying a current perspective on actual figures. Not that it's a problem to do but as a reader it is hard to find a foothold into the thoughts and motivations of historical figures. Even in the book itself, the epilogue — which finds Sampson years later living as a woman, far from her cross-dressed past — almost negates the exotic feelings that the Robert version of Deborah seemed to explore. In this sense, Revolutionary comes across as a kind of fan fiction (as someone in the book club pointed out).

One last somewhat small critique: the Drunk History version of Deborah Sampson is not nearly as lyrical as Revolutionary but does share the testicle joke groaners, which is a little surprising — page 148: "Robert held back his own laughter, thinking that, for Matthew's sake, he very much hoped [Matthew's balls] were bigger" . . . we get it . . .

Posted: May 22nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: