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Sheila Solomon Klass

Sheila Solomon Klass

SHEILA SOLOMON KLASS has been writing fiction for young adults for nearly five decades. Her books include The Uncivil War ; Shooting Star: A Novel About Annie Oakley; and Little Women Next Door. Ms. Klass lives in New York City.

Q & A

Discuss what brought you to write about Deborah Sampson and how you researched this book.

I learned about Deborah Sampson from my young grandson in Massachusetts, where Governor Michael Dukakis named her the first “Official State Heroine” in the United States. Immediately I knew she would be my heroine as well. I have a fondness for young women mavericks, independent female loners. Before Deborah Sampson I was captivated by Annie Oakley and Louisa May Alcott, each of whom insisted on going her own way. Annie Oakley became the best sharpshooter in the world. Brilliant, talented Alcott—a spinster—when asked why she chose not to marry, said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe.” There is a wealth of material about Deborah Sampson, much of it contradictory for she is a legendary figure. Even the “p” in her last name is controversial. I read voraciously, researched and carefully selected my material so that a believable, consistent heroine emerged. I stayed close to the major facts of her life whenever possible.

 

Deborah was a “give-away” child and had a difficult childhood. What do you feel ultimately precipitated her into joining the army?

Her mother’s eagerness to have her marry Noah, a totally unacceptable suitor, precipitated her enlistment, but from childhood on she had been fiercely patriotic and had dreamed a prophetic dream three times that it was her destiny to fight for freedom. Noah’s unwelcome courtship drove her to do what she’d wanted to do all through the first five years of the war.

 

Deborah’s friendship (and potential romance) with Roger Snow is fictional. Discuss your approach to this part of the book. Do you think something similar may have happened to her while in the army?

I think that if a twenty-one-year-old woman is living with a group of young men, the likelihood of a romance developing is strong. If she’s in disguise, the romance must cause incredible complications. In the novel the situation adds tension and gives greater dimension to the characters. I hesitate to speculate about the real Deborah Sampson, but her fictional counterpart blossomed in her “friendship” with Roger Snow and needed him.

 

Discuss some of the biggest challenges that Deborah faced as a disguised female soldier.

The biggest continual challenges were bathing and relieving herself. She had to arrange this so that no one saw her most personal activities. Bathing was manageable because the soldiers bathed infrequently (water, it was believed, carried disease). Going off in the woods for personal needs or a private swim was possible. In winter it must have been much harder. Clothing changes were not as great a problem because the soldiers wore no underwear and slept in their clothes. Deborah’s menstrual periods stopped soon after her enlistment, a not uncommon phenomenon when women live under such duress. But she had to always be on guard about the way she talked and walked and gesticulated; she had to move and sound like a man. Every day of her army life was a masquerade.

 

Deborah Sampson was a feminist before her time. Do you feel that statement is accurate?

No, I would not call Deborah Sampson a feminist. What she did, she did to save herself and not because she was politically conscious. Though she certainly knew that women were a subordinate population, she allied herself with no other women. Her personal plight was desperate, so, alone, with remarkable physical stamina, courage, and military skill, she became a superb soldier—a military “man.” In later life, she repeatedly apologized publicly saying that what she did was a “breach in the decorum of my sex unquestionably,” and this “ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society, from the acknowledgment of my own sex.” She pled guilty to “a foible, an error and presumption,” because women’s proper roles were “in our kitchens and parlours.” If Deborah Sampson was a feminist, it was inadvertent. I think she actually had quite conservative views.

 

How is Deborah Sampson’s story relevant to today’s teens?

Deborah Sampson fled an undesirable suitor, enlisting in wartime 1782 in a harrowing military campaign. She survived because of her courage, resourcefulness, intelligence, and physical stamina, supported by her patriotism and willingness to take risks, and her heightened awareness of minute detail—indeed, of every single action—because she was a female disguised as a male. This story of a young woman trapped in a terrible situation with only herself to rely on—who triumphs—is timeless. Deborah Sampson’s adventures resonate with her strengths, her internal resources, with the power of the individual to do what seems undoable. I think that message is clear and very relevant to teenagers, many of whom are searching for purpose and identity and who reject being pigeon-holed by society.

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BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

Soldier's Secret

Sheila Solomon Klass

In the 1700s, women’s responsibilities were primarily child rearing and household duties. But Deborah Sampson wanted more from life. She wanted to read, to travel—and to fight...

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