My library asks: Do You Know Who Deborah Sampson Was?

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Deborah Sampson

Last Saturday Deborah Sampson (aka Robert Shurtlieff) gave a stirring performance at my library. In reality, talented historical reenactor Judith Kalaora brought to life the story of Deborah Sampson’s seventeen months posing as a man so she could fight in the American Revolution. Sampson was born into poverty in an age when females had few rights, were not allowed education, and could not own property. At the age of five her mother indentured her as a servant to a family she worked for until the age of eighteen. Here is a recent Smithsonian article about her.

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The family who employed her helped her learn to read, but when she was on her own after her servitude ended, her options were few. She taught for a summer, but people did not want a female teacher; that was a man’s job. Partly through patriotism and yearning for empowerment, but also for the bounty paid to those who would enlist, this small feminine woman determined to take an active role in the struggle for freedom.

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Robert Shurtleiff ready for war.

She cut her hair, bound her chest, dressed in men’s clothing and enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. She survived various battlefield injuries including being shot in the leg. She treated that wound herself so that her identity would not be discovered. However, when she came down with a serious fever, a military doctor recognized the situation and had her treated by a nurse at his own home. Once she was healed she was honorably discharged. She later married and had children and when money became tight she lectured for a year about her wartime experiences, thereby supporting her family.

Libraries have the power to educate and entertain audiences by offering events like the one on Saturday which was part of Judith Kalaora’s Immersive Living History series of performances about significant women produced by History At Play.

Although not billed as such, this program was book-related, especially in connection to young adult biographies and novels about this intriguing character from the past. There have been a number of inspiring books. In the case of Deborah Sampson’s history, this amazing teen became the only woman granted a pension as a result of her time in the military. She was granted this financial compensation after none other than Paul Revere championed her cause. Definitely the kind of material that inspires great stories.

Examples:

Soldier’s Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson by Sheila Solomon Klass, published in 2009_ by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.

The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson by Ann McGovern, illustrated by Harold Goodwin, Scholastic

Deborah Sampson by Rick Burke, Turtleback Books

Deborah Sampson Goes to War by Bryna Stevens, Carolrhoda

Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson by Alfred E. Young, Knopf

For children’s book creators, libraries can support authors and their books by presenting dramatic programs related even tangentially to the topic of your book. Sometimes allowing someone else to dramatize the subject you write about can yield unexpected benefits for everyone.

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16 comments

  1. What a gutsy, inspiring woman! I hadn’t heard about Deborah Sampson prior to reading your post, and now I’ll never forget her. Thank you to you, Judith, and your library for enlightening us.

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    1. Thank you, Carol.Our library even has a telescope that patrons can borrow to use at home! But books are of course their number one offering. And Deborah Sampson was an intriguing individual for sure.

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  2. Sounds like a great story! So many in our history on this earth . . . Keep them coming! Thanks for this wonderful review Joyce.

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    1. Hi Kate. Great to hear from you. I’d go to other performances by this reenactor, if possible. Highlighting strong women is a really good thing.
      I hope the critique group is going well and your manuscript(s) is coming along!

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