A fantastic, engaging read! I’d probably give it closer to 4.5 stars, though, for reasons I will mention… but I loved it even more when I got to the afterword and found that it was based on a true story.
The story follows Deborah Samson (two names from Old Testament judges, which was never mentioned explicitly, though it was alluded to with her surname), who lived at the time of the Revolutionary War. Her selfish, terribly handsome father leaves her family when she is a child, and her mother can’t support her children alone, so she indentures them out as servants. Deborah goes to a family of all boys, where she helps out around the house, but really grows up essentially as one of the sisters, since she’s in the middle of the boys’ ages. As she grows, the eldest proposes to her before he goes off to join the army when war is declared, and he tells her that all the brothers are somewhat in love with her too, which is news to her: she’s a complete tomboy if ever there was one. She doesn’t answer him… and hears later that he is killed in the war. All of the brothers eventually enlist, though she especially bonds with two of the younger ones, Jerry and Phineas.
Meanwhile, Deborah (whom the brothers call “Rob,” though how they get that from Deborah I’m not sure), knows how to read and write but desires someone to practice with. The local pastor connects her with Elizabeth, a woman married to an officer in the army with three daughters. Deborah comes to regard Elizabeth as her best friend, though they’ve never met. Deborah becomes so interested in politics that eventually Elizabeth has to have her husband John answer her questions, which he does on several occasions. John, she learns, is promoted to General – and he writes to her as if she’s not “just” a girl. Deborah memorizes some of his letters.
Then one day John writes and tells her Elizabeth has died. This comes shortly after all of the brothers have enlisted and left. Deborah decides that since she can best the boys in most physical contests, and she doesn’t feel she has anything else to live for, but she’s very passionate about the cause, that she should disguise herself as a boy and enlist herself. Her first attempt at this is a dreadful failure – she’s exposed and shamed. But later she realizes what she did wrong the first time, and does a much better and more thorough job of it.
The bulk of the story from there has to do with her learning to get along with her regiment, while escaping all scrutiny, trying to pass herself off as a 16-year old boy whom puberty hasn’t yet caught up with, rather than a 20-something girl. Then one day she comes across Elizabeth’s John, and is struck by how handsome he is, which was my first clue where this was going (I’d thought she’d end up with one of the brothers). John is still grieving, and Deborah, as “Rob” the soldier, is able to encourage him. Eventually she becomes his aide-de-camp, even though she is not an officer. She falls in love with him, but of course it’s one-sided until he learns her secret.
The love story from there is a slow burn, but extremely well done–my only complaint was some of the explicit sexual references that come very late in the story. There is no actual sex before marriage though (that would not have been at all believable for the time, at any rate). She does encounter Phineas twice more as well, and it wasn’t at all what I’d predicted, but very well done too.
Apparently in real life, the romance never happened, though Harmon thought there were hints in letters that there could have been something between them. Still, enough of the story was true that it made the story all the better. I’ll be picking up more of Amy Harmon’s books.
My rating: ****1/2
Sexual content: it’s a bit much but not until the end, and it’s over fast.
Violence: it’s war, but nothing gratuitous
Political content: historical only