Study Guide

My Brother Sam Is Dead Analysis

  • Tone

    Casual, Curious

    By the time you finish My Brother Sam Is Dead, Tim feels like an old friend. And that's because, throughout the book, he talks as if we're chatting in the tavern over a cup of tea. He doesn't bother being formal. In fact, he likes to keep it simple and casual when he's telling his tale:

    You know how it is when you get really interested in something, you forget what you're doing or even where you are. Well I was thinking so hard about going up to Tom Warrups' and finally seeing Sam after all this time that I kept forgetting it was a secret. (3.1)

    You know what, Tim, we do know what that feels like.

    Thanks to Tim's casual tone, he draws us right into the action. Check out how he uses the word "you" here, almost as if we're talking to him in person. We can't lie: we wouldn't mind sitting down for a cup of fish chowder with this chatty fellow.

    But even though Tim's tone is casual, that doesn't mean he's apathetic (a.k.a. doesn't care). Actually, it's the exact opposite. Tim can be one curious guy, and his tone reflects his inquisitive attitude:

    I was scared, but I was curious. I figured the officer had gone into the tavern to drink a mug of beer. I hadn't really seen many true soldiers, and I wondered what they were like. I wasn't sure if it was safe, though. What would they do if they knew that Father was against the war? Still I didn't want to be left out of the excitement. (4.5)

    Tim's keeping it casual here, but he's also totally intrigued about what's happening inside the tavern. Take a look at how Tim asks a question in the middle of telling his story: "What would they do if they knew that Father was against the war?" Good question.

    Tim's curious attitude might be contagious… don't you think?

  • Genre

    Coming-Of-Age; War Drama; Historical Fiction

    My Brother Sam Is Dead is pretty textbook coming-of-age. Our main boy, Tim, who complains about chores, turns into our main man Tim, who tackles his chores with gusto. Okay, it's not just about chores, but you know what we mean.

    Here's the thing, though. The whole growing up thing? It's not an easy road for Tim, because he does it during the American Revolution. Cue: war drama. The first chapter opens when Sam joins the Rebel army and the epilogue closes as Tim wonders if the war really was worth it in the end. From start to finish, you'll find war on every page of this book.

    But it's not all about the Revolutionary War. My Brother Sam Is Dead also uses oodles of real events and real characters, landing it smack dab in the historical fiction genre. The main characters in the Meeker family are on the fiction side of things. But other characters from General Putnam to Mr. Heron actually lived or worked in Redding, just like they do in the book.

    Who knew reading about history could be so much fun? Actually, we did.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Talk about a spoiler.

    Yep, Sam dies. The end.

    That's kind of a huge plot point to spill before the book even begins, don't you think? So why let the cat out of the bag so early?

    Well, as strange as it may seem, it kind of adds to the suspense. Sam doesn't die until the very last sentence of the very last chapter, which means we're on our the edge of our seats the whole time, wanting to know how it's going to go down. And of course, hoping that maybe—just maybe—the title was lying.

    It sure does put us through the emotional ringer. Who knew five little words could say so much?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    My Brother Sam Is Dead kind of has two endings. Double the satisfaction, we say. Let's break them down.

    Ending #1: The One Where Sam Dies

    First, we've got the ending where Sam gets executed in the very last sentence of the book.

    And this isn't a nice and easy death either. Let's get real here: it's totally gruesome. Not only does Sam get shot multiple times with a bag over his head, but to top it off, the shots set his clothes on fire. And to make it worse, we know that poor Sam is innocent. This may be one of the roughest endings we've seen in a while.

    So we've just got to ask: what do you think of this ending? Is this how you thought Sam would die?

    Ending #2: The One Where Tim Gets Gray Hair

    After Sam dies, we get a bonus ending: the epilogue. An epilogue is like the final chapter in a book, but normally it explains what happens after the main story is over. In Tim's epilogue, we hear about Tim's life after the war. Our boy grows up big and strong, moves to Pennsylvania, becomes a hotshot businessman, gets hitched, has kiddos, and then writes down the story that we've just read.

    To be honest, we got really used to thinking about Tim as a boy, so thinking about him as an old man is totally weird. Plus, Tim spent a ton of time in the book telling us about all of his horrific stories from the war, but then he barely gives us any information on the happier times in his life. You know, the getting hitched and being successful times. What a party pooper.

    What do you think of the epilogue? Does Ending #2 make you look back on Ending #1 differently?

  • Setting

    Colonial America and Redding, Connecticut

    My Brother Sam Is Dead paints quite the picture of Colonial America. From colonial farms to colonial taverns, Tim's story gives us a look at a place where messages are hand-delivered and people walk almost everywhere. (The horror!)

    We get to see a couple different colonies throughout Tim's adventures (drive your wagon on over to "Visions of America" for more about that), but most of this book takes place in Redding, Connecticut, home to the Meeker family. And get this: Redding is a real place. Today, you can check out Putnam Park, where General P's encampment was located back in the day. Field trip, anyone?

    Behind the Scenery

    Even before General Putnam arrives in Redding, our setting is already a super political one. In fact, people in Redding are already taking sides based on where they live:

    Redding was divided into two parts—Redding Center and Redding Ridge, which was where we lived. Our tavern was at a corner where the Danbury—Fairfield Road met Cross Highway. Across the Danbury—Fairfield Road from us was the church and the graveyard. Next to the church, on the other side of Cross Highway was an empty field where the trainband practiced drilling. Next door to us was the Betts' house, and scattered around were a dozen more houses—the Sanford's house and the Rogers' house and Mr. Heron's house and some others. […]

    Our Church in Redding Ridge was the Anglican Church. "Anglican" meant English Church. […] Over at Redding Center there was a Presbyterian Church; naturally, if you were a Presbyterian, you built your house over there and if you were an Anglican, you built here on the Ridge […]

    Because our church was the England Church, the people here on the Ridge seemed to be more on the Tory side and wanted to be loyal to the King. (2.3-5)

    Sheesh, a little distance can make a big difference. It's not just about looks and landscapes; it's about church and politics, too.

    Quick Guide to the American Revolution

    For all the deets on Tories, Rebels, and the rest of the conflict, check out everything Shmoop has to say about the Revolutionary War.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Here's what makes My Brother Sam Is Dead a bit tough: the historical stuff.

    Yep. It might be a little tricky to follow all the historical details you don't already know, but it's those details that give the book its adventure and make it a major page-turner. And of course, Shmoop is here to help—check out our guide to the American Revolution if you need a historical refresher.

  • Writing Style

    Detailed, Emotional

    Our boy Tim just loves to dive into the details.

    Sometimes, this means he gives us lots of specifics about the landscape. (Hop on over to the "Visions of America" theme for more on how pretty these landscapes can be.) Other times, he hits us with info about the soldiers' uniforms. And one time, he even dives into what's inside the wagon he takes back from Verplancks Point:

    It was a good wagonload: two hogshead of rum, a half dozen big sacks of salt, a couple of barrels of molasses; a large chest of tea, a sack of coffee beans, a dozen brass kettles and some tin pots; a chest of breeches and some brass buckles; some drills, knives, files, axes and spades; and small boxes of pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and white powdered sugar. (8.44)

    See what we mean? Just check out that list. Tim doesn't want us to miss out on a single aspect of his tale, right down to the powdered sugar.

    But the things Tim likes to detail the most are his own thoughts and feelings. Yep, Tim's detailed style is also a pretty emotional one. Check out the way he tells us about his reaction to outwitting the cowboys:

    I stood for a moment listening to the sound of their hooves dying out in the snowy road, and then I began to laugh and cry all at once. My hands shook so hard I dropped my stick and my knees were so weak I could hardly walk. I felt terrific, because I'd fooled them; it would be a great story to tell Sam. But everything else was awful—Father being gone and me being alone in the snow and dark and hours to go before I got home. (9.56)

    There we go, through all the ins and outs of his feelings. And if you think your head is spinning from it all, imagine how Tim feels.

  • The Brown Bess

    Call us crazy, but the Brown Bess sounds more like the name for a cow than for a gun. But whatever, we're going to roll with it.

    Back in the Revolutionary War, people called a certain type of musket a "Brown Bess."

    In My Brother Sam Is Dead, this gun gets some serious attention. Tim's dad has one, and he uses Bessie a ton. Oh, and then Sam steals it. To top it all off, a bunch of Continental soldiers come by the Meeker house to collect the Brown Bess, and when it isn't there, some serious hoo-ha ensues. One thing's for sure: this gun is in high demand.

    So what might the gun represent? Let's start by breaking down the name into its two parts:

    • Brown: Well, the gun is brown so… maybe this isn't the most creative name ever?
    • Bess: According to Tim, Bess is Queen Elizabeth's nickname, and the gun is named after her (1.126). Queen Liz ruled England back in the 1500s.

    That's right. This gun is named after a lady who ruled over England. And now it's being used by rebel soldiers to fight against England. That's some serious role reversal right there. It's like the Continental Army is using England's own tools against them. Talk about rebellious.

    Family Matters

    The gun causes lots of trouble even within Tim's family. Check out what Tim has to say about Sam stealing his dad's gun:

    It was one thing for Sam to say he was going to fight the British; they were a long way from here. But to take Father's gun was pretty bad; Father was right here and he seemed a lot more real to me than the British did. (1.126)

    To Tim, taking the gun is even worse than Sam fighting the British—it's pretty much the worst thing he could do. And it sure does cause some family tensions once he's made off with the musket. The way we see it, the gun might be an indication that the war is so powerful that it can even mess with the bonds of family. What do you think?

  • Cows

    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?

  • Letters

    Letters are the emails of colonial America. Back in the day, people didn't have phones to call a friend. They didn't even have telegraphs to transmit messages. And they definitely didn't have owls delivering their mail. Nope, people relied on good old-fashioned letters to communicate across longer distances.

    There are oodles of letters in My Brother Sam Is Dead. Here are the ones that popped out to us:

    • Those "business letters" Mr. Heron wants Tim to deliver to Fairfield (5.36). Well, they weren't actually "business letters" at all, were they? Nope, they were secret messages about the war.
    • The letter Tim tries to deliver between Mr. Heron and Mr. Burr. Sadly for Tim, Betsy stops him.
    • The letters Sam writes home. His father refuses to respond, but at least his mom writes back. 
    • Betsy and Sam write letters to each other. Now that's cute.

    Did we miss any?

    Letters, Letters, Everywhere

    Sometimes, the letters in this book are all about keeping up relationships, despite the war at hand. Think about those letters Sam's mom sends him—just to show she's thinking of him. Or when Sam writes to Betsy, he can tell her when he'll be visiting Redding. Without letters, these relationships might not be as strong. Or as existent.

    But some of the letters in this book cause serious spats. We're thinking about the letter Mr. Heron writes to Mr. Burr. Betsy is so intent on finding out what's inside the letter that she gets into a rumble with Tim. Yep, that's right, the two of them have a regular brawl on the road over that letter:

    I hit her on the back but in that position I couldn't get much force. "Get off me, Betsy."

    "Not until I get that letter," she said. She jerked at my shirt, trying to pull it up. I grabbed at her hands and twisted my body underneath her to turn over so I could be on top, but she pushed her whole weight down on me, grunting. So I slammed her as hard as I could on the side of her head. (6.98-99)

    Check out how violent Tim and Betsy get over this letter. Apparently neither one has any qualms about punching a friend. Ouch. This letter is so important that it turns two friends into fighters. Did anyone ever tell them to use their words?

  • Telling Points

    Were you at all confused about all this telling points business? Unless you're a regular debater, "telling point" might not be a term you've heard before. Never fear, new debaters, Shmoop is here to help.

    Let's start with a definition. In a debate, a telling point is a game-changing statement. It's a killer idea that might make your opponent reel with amazement at your brilliance. In a debate, scoring a telling point is a huge deal because it might even help you win. And it'll definitely impress people in the audience.

    Sam loves showing off his debate skills for Tim. Actually, bragging to Tim about all the telling points he scored at college is something Sam can only do with his little bro:

    Sam couldn't boast about his triumphs to Father or Mother or to Mr. Beach or anybody like that, because boasting was pride and pride was a sin, but he could boast to me about them, because I didn't care whether it was pride or not, they were interesting. (1.54)

    Aw, that's actually pretty sweet. Even though he's showing off, Sam's boasting brings him closer to his baby bro. You might say that these telling points are all about building brotherly love.

    Where else do telling points crop up within the novel? And what do you think they might represent?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Our head honcho Tim tells his own story. This means we get to hear what he's thinking and feeling all the time. And boy does this kid spend lot of time thinking. Basically, it's all Tim all the time.

    Here's the deal. There are two sides to the Timmy-as-taleteller coin:

    (1) With Tim as our storyteller, we get an up-close-and-personal look at history. This isn't just a story about the Revolutionary War as a big abstract event that happened oodles of years ago. Instead, we learn about how this war affected our main man, Tim.

    (2) Tim may be a great storyteller, but he isn't a mind reader. This means that Tim doesn't always know what's happening outside his town of Redding. To be honest, he can't even tell us what other people are thinking. But that's not going to stop Timmy from taking a guess every now and again:

    When I saw Betsy at the tavern or in church I would look at her in hopes that she would give me a sign or whisper to me that Sam was coming soon, but she never did. I guess she was scared of having the subject come up in front of grownups, especially Father or the other Tories. (3.29)

    See how Tim tries to figure out what Betsy is thinking? He doesn't know exactly what's going on inside that head of hers. But he looks at her actions to take as good a guess as he can.

    So how much do you think we should trust Tim's guesses? Do you think he's a reliable narrator? Or does he spend too much time guessing and not enough time on the facts?

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      War is A-Brewin'

      Our main man Tim gets the shock of his life: his big bro announces he's joining up with the Patriots. That's right, Sam is going to fight against the British in the American Revolutionary War. And get this: Papa Meeker is loyal to England, not the Colonies. For now, Tim wants to stay out of this big ol' mess, but we can tell tough times are ahead.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      To Be a Patriot or To Be a Loyalist: That is the Question

      Tim can't deny the war any longer. With a Loyalist dad supporting England and a Patriot brother supporting the American colonies, Tim has a big conflict on his hands: which side should he support? Does he go along with his dad or join up with his brother? For Tim, these questions don't have easy answers.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      And Tim Chooses…No One!

      When British troops roll into Tim's town of Redding, things get really ugly. Soon after, Tim gets reunited with Sam. With all this action, Tim has to decide which side he supports. The whole book has been leading up to this big decision, and it looks like Tim is chucking both teams in the can. Instead of taking sides, he's going anti-war.

      Falling Action

      Now this War is Super Duper Personal

      When Sam is falsely accused of cow-stealing, Tim tries to help his brother out. He and his mom try everything they can think of to save Sammy. If this part of the plot doesn't feel like it's winding down, that's because it's not. The suspense just keeps going right to the very end.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      That Guy in the Title Dies

      Tim just can't prove his brother innocent. So one horrible day, Sam is executed. The ending at least resolves the suspense, since we finally find out how poor Sammy dies—but we can't say we're happy about it.

    • Allusions

      Historical References

      • Samuel Adams (1.6)
      • John Hancock (1.6)
      • Benedict Arnold (1.15-19, 1.103-105, 11.49-50, 11.92, 11.110)
      • Boston Tea Party (1.42)
      • Battle of Bunker Hill (3.2)
      • Capture of Fort Ticonderoga (3.2)
      • George Washington (10.3)
      • General Putnam (chapters 12-14)