There were many things I liked about my Grandmother Puffer’s home: cartoons on television (We didn’t have a TV at home: hippie parents.), Cheerios for breakfast (ditto), and all manner of ancestral relics. There was a genuine family tree—branches wider than my arms—and artifacts like a chair that Myles Standish had sat in (and in which we were not to sit) and a bugle that had been played at President Wilson’s inauguration. More than all this stuff, there were the tales my grandmother could tell.
Every April, on Patriot’s Day, we’d go with my grandmother to see the re-enactment of the battles of Lexington and Concord, and, once back at her house, I could count on her to tell Deborah’s story. “Can you imagine?” she’d say. “She so wanted to join the army that she ran away and put on men’s clothes. I guess she had watched boys her age go off to be soldiers and wanted a chance to serve. But can you imagine?”
I was certain that, if the Revolutionary War started up again, it wouldn’t take me half a minute to pull on some britches and join the army.
I could. I was 6 or 7 or 8, a little girl. But even then I knew that wasn’t exactly who or what I was. And I could imagine Deborah quite well. I could picture how her skirts and apron and lace cap must have felt: just like the tights and dress and pinafore my mother made me wear to birthday parties. I absolutely knew that Deborah, from her spinning wheel, had looked at boys in her town marching off with the militia the same way that I looked at my brother when he went racing out the door to play with BB guns, while my friends brought over Barbies. And I was certain that, if the Revolutionary War started up again and someone rode on a horse through my town ringing a bell and proclaiming that the British were coming, it wouldn’t take me half a minute to pull on some britches and join the army.
That said, it wasn’t until I was 17 years old that I figured out I was transgender—to finally say that I was a man and would live the rest of my life as one. I remember that it felt hard: difficult to explain to people, tough to imagine exactly how I would manage all the legal and personal details. It was unspeakably nice to have Deborah’s story there, waiting for me. What a comfort to know that someone had done this before, had crossed this line—done it in 1782, well before gender identity was a concept—and had family that was still proud of her to this day.
When I sat down to write Revolutionary, I read my grandmother’s volume of family genealogy and then Alfred Young’s history of Deborah. And I counselled myself: this is Deborah’s story, not your story. I wanted to let her character emerge fully, without bearing the imprint of my own. Yet, so often as I wrote, I thought—she would have worried about using the bathroom . . . she would have glowed when someone called her “young man”. . . just like me. There were many times when I felt that point of contact through the page.
There were, however, just as many spots where our stories diverged. I wish I could have had Deborah turn west at the end of the novel; I would have liked nothing better than for her to continue living as a man and to find a little farm out in the new Ohio territory, even if that meant living the rest of her life alone. That’s what I would have wanted to do. But that isn’t what she did. She went home, to an aunt and uncle and to a place that she’d missed. She went home and married and had children and became Deborah again—something I could never imagine doing. Yet, if she had not . . . I wouldn’t be able to write her story.
Born and raised in Paris, Maine, Alex Myers was raised as a girl (Alice). He came out as transgender at 17 and earned degrees from Harvard and Brown before attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts to study fiction writing—where he began his debut novel. Revolutionary is the story of his ancestor Deborah Samson Gannett, who disguised herself as a man in order to join the Continental Army and fight the British. Myers currently teaches English at St. George’s School, where he lives with his wife and two cats.