In the foreword, Felton explains his decision to devote several early chapters to the events that preceded Sampson’s actual enlistment and military experiences. He documents a general agreement among sources that she began dressing as a man when she was twenty-one and that it was at least a year later that she enlisted. To account for this year, he creates scenes loosely based on several contradictory sources to explain how Sampson prepared to become a soldier. The chapters focusing on events during her military career proceed from a more factual basis, as do the concluding chapters that describe her discharge according to “written testimonials of good service and good conduct” and her subsequent marriage. There are three themes, all introduced in the foreword, that Felton has woven throughout Deborah Sampson: historical events as anchors for scenes from Sampson’s life, the author’s admiration for the subject of his biography, and Felton’s concern with Sampson’s reputation.
Each of the chapters integrates historical facts and events with fictionalized scenes from Sampson’s life. By combining fact with narrative, Felton holds the interest of young readers while acquainting them with information that is historically accurate. Felton’s use of invented scenes and dialogue helps young readers to identify with Sampson, to understand her motivation, and to care about her as a person.
Felton’s admiration for Sampson is...
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Deborah Sampson was a product of its time—the mid-1970’s during the height of the feminist movement, when the traditional view of women was being questioned. Felton, in his choice of subject and in the way in which he presents her, reflects the period in which the book was written. Earlier biographies of Sampson, written during the preceding century, appear to focus on explaining why a woman chose to behave in such an “unseemly” manner by dressing as a man and fighting as a soldier. Felton’s biography, on the other hand, applauds Sampson’s performance.
Felton’s presentation is clearly feminist in tone: He portrays colonial women as strong, hardworking, and worthy of admiration. For example, in one of the early chapters, Felton devotes a paragraph to describing “simple tasks, well becoming a girl”: Among these tasks are listed butchering, harrowing, haying, harvesting, and some work in the forge. In the concluding chapters, when General Patterson asks Sampson how it was possible for her to survive the hardships of life in the army, Felton has Sampson reply that “perhaps everyone underestimates women.”
Young readers will, no doubt, continue to be fascinated by the idea of a woman as a revolutionary war soldier. Yet the concept of women as soldiers has become known and accepted, making much of the justification and explanation in Felton’s narrative confusing and unnecessary. Moreover, because many modern biographies for children resemble novels in their style and use of literary devices, Felton’s biography may seem dull in comparison with more recent works. Nevertheless, with its clear historical sequence of scenes, its careful documentation, and its use of simple dialogue, Deborah Sampson remains a valuable contribution to the literature on American women in history.