Christopher Collier Essay - Critical Essays

Collier, Christopher


Christopher Collier 1930– James L(incoln) Collier 1928–

American novelists and nonfiction writers.

The Collier brothers have collaborated on several historical novels for young adults. Christopher, an American history scholar, provides the historical framework, while James, an established fiction writer, creates characters who represent various responses to historical events. The Colliers attempt to show that history can be interpreted in many ways, unlike the often static recounting of incidents presented in many textbooks. The Colliers often set their stories in colonial America and depict common people who undertake heroic struggles. They examine such topics as racism, sexism, freedom, and war in a historical context, suggesting that the past can provide a useful guide for modern social behavior.

The Colliers have been praised for presenting contrasting perspectives of historical events. In My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974), for instance, they depict the Revolutionary War as an internal war fought between those Americans who were loyal and those hostile to British rule. They show that many people opposed rebellion and they present the effects of war on both individuals and families. This novel won wide acclaim for its portrayal of a family divided because of the war. Many of the Colliers' protagonists struggle for social justice. In War Comes to Willy Freeman (1983), a young black female attempts to overcome racial and sexual prejudice in pre-Revolutionary America.

The Colliers' work has been generally well received by critics. Many find their blend of historical facts and fictional characters both entertaining and informative.

(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Something about the Author, Vols. 8, 16.)

Joyce Alpern

[My Brother Sam Is Dead] in many ways fits the traditional mold of period adventure. Like Esther Forbes's Newbery winning Johnny Tremain, its hero, Tim Meeker, is a boy caught up in the events of the American Revolution, who rubs elbows with historical luminaries and grows to manhood under the war's demands. The startling difference here is that Tim Meeker goes through the war totally immune to the Spirit of '76. In fact the only ardent Patriot to play a major part in this novel is Tim's older brother Sam, an idealistic, sometimes rather sophomoric youth who catches the war fever from his Yale classmates.

To modern readers Tim's lack of partisanship seems rather surprising. After all the Revolution remains one of the few really popular wars in our history…. Certainly it provides one occasion when juvenile authors can comfortably take sides, presenting the rebels simply as "our side" and exploiting patriotic sentiment in the service of adventure or pedagogy.

Now the Colliers … have the nerve to ask us whether, had we been around in '76, we might not have thrown in our lot with the Tories. It's a presumptuous, downright cheeky question. But Tim's experiences really are enough to make us wonder what we'd have done in his place.

From the book's first moment, when brother Sam shows up at the family's door dressed in his new Continental uniform …, Tim is caught between his hero worship...

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Olivia Coolidge

The Bloody Country is an exciting and well-written novel concerning a little-known episode in American history, namely the conflict between Pennsylvania and Connecticut for the ownership of the Wyoming Valley, which was awarded to Pennsylvania by Congress in 1782.

Ben Buck, his parents, his sister Annie and her husband, together with the family slave Joe Mountain, half Indian and half Black, form part of a group of Connecticut settlers which Pennsylvanians now try to dispossess…. The Bucks, who have worked desperately to build their flour mill on the banks of the Susquehanna near Wilkes Barre, soon find that their sacrifice and toil count for nothing. If they are driven back to Connecticut with the loss of all they own, Ben sees no future save work as another man's servant, never getting a chance to raise a family or have a place of his own. This grim prospect gradually forces him to reflect on the position of Joe Mountain…. Ben's struggles to see Joe as a person rather than a chattel give depth to the plot and serve to develop his character and those of family members.

The action is consistently exciting, starting with the Indian raid which kills Ben's mother, going on to the mounting tension caused by acts of violence against the Connecticut settlers, and climaxed by a tremendous flood of the Susquehanna, which devastates the valley and wipes out the mill…. But nothing can keep the Buck family down. Ben and his father rebuild the mill, while "the government" finds it too expensive to continue supporting with troops those speculators who have been trying to take over. Thus all comes right in the end, even for Joe Mountain, while Ben achieves a solid maturity.

The government does not come well out of this story, though it is evident that there are lawyers fighting about the case, even if the Bucks know little about them. But since Ben and his father are indestructible, they wear the government down at least as successfully as do the legal men in Philadelphia. The Bloody Country is a dramatic, well-constructed, thoughtful book which gives a vivid picture of the hard work and persistence so often needed by the successful pioneer.

Olivia Coolidge, "The Founding Fighters," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 2, 1976, p. L3.∗

Zena Sutherland

As they did in their other story of the American Revolution, My Brother Sam Is Dead, the Colliers [in The Bloody Country] focus on a small geographical area and use it to explore the conflicting loyalties and abrasions between groups of colonists. Here the setting is a Pennsylvania valley community whose residents, emigrants from Connecticut, are persecuted by the Pennamites, older residents who claim the land and who use the help of the British and of a local Indian tribe to drive the newcomers away…. Most of the book is based on fact; the community is Wilkes-Barre. The story is dramatic and convincing, the characters drawn with depth and vigor, and the book especially valuable for its exploration of issues and philosophy in a way that enhances the narrative impact of a fine example of historical fiction.

Zena Sutherland, in a review of "The Bloody Country," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 30, No. 4, December, 1976, p. 55.

Hughes Moir

In My Brother Sam Is Dead, the first book created by Jim and Kit Collier, the complexity of issues about the Revolutionary War and war in general is explored in ways perhaps unique in children's literature. The story, set in Connecticut, shows a family torn between divided partisanship toward the war: the Loyalist dimension (Mr. Meeker's concern with maintaining his business and protecting his family) versus the Patriot dimension (young Sam Meeker's decision to join the rebel forces). Sam's younger brother, Tim, remains at home and is left with the ultimately unresolved conflict of torn personal loyalties. In the end both his father and brother are killed, providing the reader with biting ironies. His father is killed by the British when he attempts to deliver his cattle to the British troops; Sam is executed by his Patriot regiment after falsely being accused of stealing cattle that belonged to his family. In the end neither Tim nor the reader can make any clear-cut commitment to either side of the conflict. The theme of this book—sharply defined by the events of the story and useful as a "guide to contemporary behavior"—is explained by Kit Collier:

In a complex way it deals with why Americans did and did not become involved in the war. We wanted to show also that war unleashes forces that one does not know what the outcome may be. Hence, the usefulness of history to explain our present, for example, Lebanon and Viet Nam.

As a work conceived to present concepts related to the issues of war, My Brother Sam Is Dead portrays the Revolutionary War not as the good guys versus the bad guys, but rather as a civil war where families and communities were divided in public opinion. It was not an easy war to fight or to make decisions about. (p. 377)


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Kirkus Reviews

[In The Winter Hero, the American Revolution] is over, but in western Massachusetts there's new unrest: laws passed way off in Boston—where it seemed too costly to send representatives—are making the poor farmer poorer, and aggrandizing the rich. When hot-tempered Peter McColloch's oxen are taken to satisfy a debt, he hies himself to Daniel Shays—and the Colliers launch us into the story of Shays' dubiously-named "Rebellion," as seen by 14-year-old Justin Conkey…. There's precious little glory, insistent-volunteer Justin finds, as Shays' Regulators are outmaneuvered, outmanned, outgunned and, time after time, run away…. This is truly history talked out and walked out. Less effective is Justin's...

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Zena Sutherland

Like the other historical novels by the Collier brothers, [The Winter Hero] is fiction skilfully based on fact, and an appended note makes clear which is which…. As is true of the earlier books, the story has a dramatic plot and good style, historical information nicely integrated into the plot and the dialogue, and that final element that marks the best in historical fiction: it gives the reader an understanding of the personal conflicts, the practical needs, the ideological principles, and the background that contributed to an event. The political oppression and financial burdens suffered by Massachusetts citizens in 1787, seen through Justin's eyes, are as vivid as his descriptions of confrontations...

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Paul Heins

Although Shays' Rebellion might seem to be an unpromising subject for a historical novel for young readers, the authors of My Brother Sam Is Dead … have courageously but not always successfully made the most of it [in The Winter Hero]. Seen from the point of view of Justin Conkey, who was fourteen at the time, the events of the story transcend the urgent question of taxation in America and emphasize the boy's desire to prove himself a hero…. The language is plain and full of understatement; the events and the unusual situations historically verifiable; but the last two-thirds of the novel gives the impression of a briefly developed chronicle and fails to sustain the dramatic interest, the suspense,...

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Zena Sutherland

[Jump Ship to Freedom is] told by young Dan Arabus, whose father had fought in the patriots' army and had become a free man, while Dan and his mother still belonged to Captain Ivers. In an adventurous tale of danger and pursuit, Dan runs away after a frightening sea voyage and is taken under the wing of an elderly Quaker who is en route to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia…. The notes that follow the story draw a careful distinction between fact and fiction, and explain the authors' decision to shape the dialogue and terminology to preserve accuracy and convey a period flavor. The dramatic story is solidly constructed, well-paced save for a rather lengthy description of a storm at sea, and...

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Stephen Krensky

[The] past is not always a dusty place with mold growing in the corners, a fact born out by "Jump Ship to Freedom," a fast-paced narrative about a black slave in 1787.

Daniel Arabus is the slave, a bright but somewhat cowed teenager owned by Captain Ivers of Stratford, Conn. Daniel has been told that feeling lowly and stupid is an inherent condition in "negroes," but his natural intelligence says otherwise. Through his eyes the Colliers have subtly documented the ironic idiocy of regarding men and women as property when they are so demonstrably human beings. Daniel's one source of pride is the memory of his recently drowned father. Jack Arabus had fought bravely in the Revolution, serving in his...

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Cynthia King

Daniel Arabus is a 14-year-old runaway slave from Stratford, Conn., who overhears certain arguments that preceded the North-South compromise on slavery. How he ends up carrying the crucial message to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, while posters are being circulated for his capture, is the story the Collier brothers tell.

Though "Jump Ship to Freedom" is patterned like their other novels …, it is not as strong. Once again a young boy is thrust into a pivotal moment in Revolutionary history. But Dan Arabus is not as convincing as the authors' other heroes….

Dan is almost miraculously perceptive, analytical, brave, resourceful and just plain lucky. But his...

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Joel Taxel

This important novel [Jump Ship to Freedom] touches on an issue all-too-rarely treated in historical fiction for young people; namely the fiercely debated question of how the new Constitution would deal with the issue of black slavery….

Another noteworthy aspect of this exciting novel is the dramatic change we see in Daniel's self-esteem. At the outset, we see a boy who has internalized the myths about black inferiority used to justify their enslavement. His adventures and contacts with more enlightened attitudes lead to a growing understanding that he too is a person of dignity and worth.

Joel Taxel, in a review of "Jump Ship to Freedom," in The...

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[My Brother Sam Is Dead] appears to have been inspired by the anti-war movement of the 70s, although the book is about the American Revolution. Young Timothy cannot decide whether to be a "Patriot" like his beloved brother or a Tory like his beloved father. In the climactic incident, Timothy's brother, Sam, a dedicated member of the Continental army, is suddenly executed by his own commanding general because of an alleged theft. Authors Christopher and James Lincoln Collier seem to be trying to stun the reader with a triple-layered irony: Sam's arrest for a crime he didn't commit, his indictment for literally stealing from himself and his death at the hands of his compatriots. The unrealistic plot complications...

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Joel Taxel

Rather than suggesting Americans shared a consensus about the correctness of the rebellion against the king, My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) contains a picture of a family and community bitterly divided on this very issue….

Caught in the middle of this dispute is Tim, Sam's younger brother and the novel's protagonist. The tragedy of war is evident in the conclusion of the novel which finds Sam executed by his own army for a crime he did not commit, while his father dies after languishing aboard a disease-ridden British prison ship after being incarcerated for no apparent reason. Tim, finding hypocrisy and duplicity on both sides, chooses not to fight and instead sits out the war in the tavern...

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Joel Taxel

[Jump Ship to Freedom] details a young black's involvement in the constitutional compromise that left intact the brutal slave system. War Comes to Willy Freeman details the events that preceded those depicted in that work.

Willy Freeman is a free, thirteen-year-old black girl living in Revolutionary War Connecticut. After witnessing the brutal slaying of her father by the British, she returns home to find that her mother has disappeared. Her search for her mother takes place against a backdrop of the war's final months and the efforts of Captain Ivers to re-enslave her. This novel is one of a precious few which discuss the plight of blacks during the Revolution: Do they believe the...

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Holly Sanhuber

Once again the Colliers deal with the impact of war on humanity. The nature of [War Comes to Willy Freeman], a fast-paced adventure, precludes extensive character development. Willy is an endearing creature, though, and her exploits and daring ensure exciting reading. The Colliers certainly have a gift for using dialect realistically without it becoming obtrusive, although the sometimes use of the word "nigger" by both blacks and whites … may offend modern sensibilities. More disturbing to some readers may be the fact that although Willy bemoans woman's lot as unequal and unfair—the authors acknowledge she may sound too modern—she twice uses the fact of her gender to save her life.


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Richard Slotkin

The Colliers' War Comes to Willy Freeman, set during the American Revolution, has as its protagonist a black girl whose father dies in the British attack on New London, Connecticut (1781)…. The inner life of Willy Freeman is the real matter of this story, which deals with the primary early-teen issues of individuation and separation from parents and parental authority. The issues implicitly correspond to the themes of the War of Independence, which gives the history an emotional resonance. The sexual role-playing Willy engages in also raises questions of sexual identity that are so critical during puberty, and do so in a way that readers concerned with overcoming sexual stereotypes will find interesting....

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Marilyn Kaye

Once again, as in "My Brother Sam Is Dead" and "Jump Ship to Freedom," the brothers James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier place an ordinary fictional character smack in the center of an extraordinary historical event. [In "War Comes to Willy Freeman"] they weave a compelling drama that allows readers to experience the plight of blacks during the Revolutionary War….

"War Comes to Willy Freeman" makes the historical setting seem remarkably immediate. An afterword called "How Much of This Story Is True?" places the tale in a historical perspective that confirms its credibility. The facts are all here, and the authors' fictional interpretation is evocative and believable.


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