Women in Uniform: Revolutionary & I Shall Be Near to You

It would be easy to read Revolutionary, a novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man and enlists as a soldier during the tail end of the Revolutionary War, through a trans prism—especially since the author, Alex Myers, has told The Daily Beast that his own experiences as a transgender person informed his understanding of the real-life Deborah Samson, “how she might have felt as she tried to pass, to belong to this group of men at West Point.”

Easy, but too simplistic. “I don’t think that Deborah was transgender,” Myers immediately clarified. “I wanted to be very cautious not to transpose my 21st century notions of transgender identity onto her late-18th century notions of sexuality.” Though Deborah becomes so deeply invested in her adopted identity as Robert Shurtliff—”Robert after a favorite uncle, Shurtliff a middle name come down through the generations”—that the novel’s close third-person narration begins referring to her as “he,” Robert never considers himself to be a man in a woman’s body. By living as a man, however, Robert comes to enjoy a freedom that simply isn’t available to an unmarried young woman in colonial Massachusetts. “How easily men could say no,” Deborah observes early in her military career, “how readily they did as they pleased.” And yet, Robert tells another character who discovers his secret much later, “perhaps if society treated women differently, I wouldn’t mind being a woman.”

(In the same way that he avoids defining Deborah/Robert’s gender identity in modern terms, Myers is careful in his portrayals of sexual identity. Though Deborah’s closest relationship back home, with a young woman named Jennie, is emotionally intense and physically intimate, it’s never portrayed as a lesbian relationship, nor does Robert imagine marriage to Jennie as a possibility.)

Revolutionary may work best as a study of the refining of Deborah’s feminist sensibilities, with a slight undercurrent of class awareness, as she comes to realize that “what matters is not whether I live as a man or woman but whether I live true to myself without letting others confine or restrict me.” The story itself sometimes feels like it has less at stake than it could. At least twice, Robert is at risk of exposure from someone who knows his secret; each time, the threat evaporates. The greatest emotional devastation takes place when Robert is cut off from his fellow soldiers; it changes how he relates to them upon his return, but not how they relate to him.

Maybe this goes back to Myers’s approach to the story: Though the narration does take us inside Deborah’s consciousness, and then Robert’s, it comes with a sense of detachment, of studying the situation from the outside. That’s not the case with Erin Lindsay McCabe’s I Shall Be Near to You, in which Rosetta Wakefield describes in her own words how she fought alongside her husband in the Civil War. (McCabe was inspired by the real-life Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, but also draws upon the experiences of other women who took part in the conflict.) The first person voice brings an immediacy to her frustrations at being wedged into the traditional role of a 19th-century farm wife, at being left behind while Jeremiah enlists in the Union Army to raise the money they need to buy their own farm. As soon as “Ross Stone” signs up with the 97th New York Volunteers, though, she faces a much different dilemma than Robert Shurtliff. It isn’t just Jeremiah who knows the truth, but all the other young men from their hometown—none of whom are especially keen on having Rosetta with them.

The biggest difference, though, is that Ross is simply a surface-level mask for Rosetta; she never “becomes” Ross the way that Deborah becomes Robert, and that’s especially clear when you’re hearing it directly from her. At times, the masculine pose borders on the comic—“my trousers are the most ridiculous articles I ever did put on,” Rosetta complains upon receiving her uniform—but the opportunities for levity diminish as her outfit is sent to the front lines at Bull Run and Antietam, confronting Confederate troops who “look like any farmer from home and except for the gray they’re wearing it is almost like we are coming out of the trees to kill ourselves.”

Surrounded by the carnage of the battlefields and the military hospitals, which McCabe describes in vivid detail, Rosetta finds the inner strength to do what needs to be done—and to justify the radical decision that brought her to this place. “I’ve got to have this moment here with my man,” she declares, “and anybody thinks it strange, I am past caring.” Ultimately, she comes to a point where she could echo the words that Myers has Deborah Samson imagine saying to her comrades: “You have judged me strong and capable and diligent and brave, and I am. And I am a woman.”

(NOTE: This post originally appeared at Beacon.)

24 February 2014 | read this |