A Girl Called Samson

Written by Amy Harmon
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1770, 10-year-old Deborah Samson is bound out to a Puritan family in Middleborough, Massachusetts. The kindly Reverend Conant, charged with delivering her to the Thomases, permits the unschooled, headstrong girl to improve her writing skills by corresponding with his married niece, Elizabeth. Written over many years, these letters are insightful and an informative exposition of the onset of the Revolutionary War and the ragged, footsore soldiers Samson later lives with, fighting and dying for their country’s independence, her Thomas siblings among them.

Denied schooling in a house with the ten Thomas boys, Deborah squeezes them for every drop of knowledge. She competes against them―running, shooting, and fighting―often besting them at their own games, but family dynamics change with the onset of adolescence. In April 1781, at 21, Samson enlists as 16-year-old Robert Shurtliff. Posted to West Point, she comes face to face with her past and a truth she cannot deny.

Samson’s difficult transformation, and the logistics of a woman posing as a man in an exclusively male world, is one of the most engaging aspects of the novel. Unable to disguise her boyish looks and clear complexion, she deflects attention by making herself indispensable―writing letters for illiterate fellow soldiers, leading in drills, and handling weapons with speed and accuracy. Fear of being discovered surpasses her fear of suffering and death.

Shurtliff grapples with questions unlikely to be asked today―was she barred entry to a man’s world because a woman is deemed inferior or because men seek to protect their greatest treasure from the battlefield? This is a thought-provoking, deeply moving read in which a patriotic woman, forbidden from serving her country due to her sex, defies all odds to do it anyway. Harmon’s riveting narrative allows Samson’s bravery, both on and off the battlefield, to soar from the pages of long-forgotten history. Warmly recommended.