Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Were you as scared as we were when Sam and his dad ran into the cowboys? And were you as nervous as us when they captured Mr. Meeker? And were you as worried as we were when Sam was accused of stealing cows? And are you as surprised as us that cows are so important in this story?
There's no denying it: cows take the cake in this book. In fact, without cows, there wouldn't be much of a story to tell. They show up in almost every major event in the novel.
So what might cows represent? We've got a few thoughts on the matter.
Moooooove over Safety: Danger is the Name of the Game
Where there are cows, you just might find some cowboys. And that's exactly what happens in My Brother Sam Is Dead. When you think of a cowboy, do you imagine a dude with a lasso, some cornbread, and a fondness for herding cattle? Us too. But the cowboys in this book don't fit this picture.
Instead, cowboys are some of the most dangerous characters in the book. Check it out:
Father was right about the thieves who people called cow-boys. We'd heard all kinds of stories from travelers about them. All of that part of Westchester county, from the Connecticut border over to the Hudson River, had gotten to be a kind of no man's land, with roving bands wandering around plundering people on the excuse that they were part of the war. (7.26)
In this book, cowboy is just another term for thief.
And Shmoop for one doesn't like the idea of cowboys "plundering people" and stealing their cattle. That's just bad manners. And it sure puts Tim and his dad in danger when they run into cowboys who want to steal their cows.
Cows Make Good Life Preservers
Even with all this danger, cows also have a pretty straightforward function for the Meeker family: they are a means of survival. Think about Old Pru: she gives the Meekers milk all year round. Plus, the Meekers sell cattle every year to help pay for supplies for their store and tavern. In fact, cows are extra important because they are multi-tasking animals. Take a look at what Tim says about these moo-ing creatures:
It was a terrible thing to lose your milking cows because it meant no more milk or butter or cheese. (5.4)
In colonial days, cows may as well be a full-service store. They aren't just for trading or butchering. They provide all kinds of food. So if you want to survive, you better hold onto your cattle.
Can you find more places where cows crop up? And what else might they symbolize?