Coming of Age
There is constant reference to Adam Cooper’s coming of age, both in his own first person point of view and from the other characters. In the beginning of the story he feels held back by his parents’ view of him as a wayward and difficult child. He is fifteen and tall and wanting to be taken seriously. As Solomon Chandler tells him, fifteen is not too young to go courting in colonial times. Chandler was married at seventeen, he says. Boys became men sooner when they had to run farms, hunt for food, and go to war. Life expectancy was shorter. Chandler at sixty is seen as an old, old man.
Adam is at a point where he has many choices open for his future. He dreams of going to sea with his Uncle Jamison. His father, however, has the idea to send him to college, not a typical scenario at the time, but the father is educated, and learning is a tradition in the Cooper family. Ruth has ideas of an early marriage to Adam. Adam is yearning to use his mind and express his own thoughts instead of living under the restrictions of his family. Both mother and father seem to be dissatisfied with his behavior. His father criticizes him; his mother thinks he should be reading the Bible in his free time. Granny alone makes Adam feel loved, though she, too, thinks he is too rebellious in his freethinking about religion.
The parents, however, realize that Adam is at a breaking point. Adam tells his mother bluntly that he will have to disobey her if she refuses to let him go out with the other men during the crisis. Moses sees in the eyes of his son that he will not be refused as he signs up for the town muster, though he is a year too young. He reads Adam correctly, for Adam had threatened to Ruth he might have to do something his parents did not know or approve of, such as running away to sea.
Adam gets more than he bargained for by asking to be a man on the night the Revolutionary War starts. He is given a man’s duty with little preparation. Adam’s mother had warned, “A boy doesn’t turn into a man overnight. It takes learning and growing and hurting. And most of all, it takes time” (p. 72). This may be true, but Adam is not given the time to make a smooth transition.
Cousin Simmons, who takes Moses Cooper’s place as Adam’s father after Moses is killed, helps Adam to make the transition by constantly referring to what he is going through and helping him take the next step. When Adam turns out on the green with the other men, Simmons says, “A boy went to bed and a man awakened, hey Adam?” (p. 66). It is only during the British attack that Adam begins to appreciate his father as a person, admiring the legacy he has been given and must live up to. The moment Adam’s father is killed, he must take up his father’s position in the family. He is scared for his life hiding in the smokehouse, but when he sees his little brother’s fear, he knows, “I would take care of him just as if I were his own father” (p. 102).
Yet, this does not harden Adam enough in the coming battles. He pukes over and over seeing men die, especially the ones his own age on both sides of the conflict. Whenever he sees a male relative, like Cousin Simmons or Cousin Dover, he runs into their arms and sobs like a child. He is an orphan but a soldier who must kill other men. Solomon Chandler helps him to face and overcome fear. Simmons helps him to accept the principles of war the way his father would: it is a man’s duty to defend his home. Yet when he returns home and sees the way his mother now is desperate to treat him as the head of the household, he shrinks. He wants to tell Ruth, “Can’t you see what they are doing to me?” (p. 176). They are assuming he is already a man when he is still working it out. He knows however, he cannot take his time growing up. The violence has ripped him from childhood, and he cannot go back.
There is an emphasis throughout this war story that war and killing are wrong. Though not a pacifist, Moses Cooper does not believe in using violence to solve problems. He is a man of reason and relies on his ability to win arguments to persuade other people of the right course. He tells the men on the green not to cock their guns because they will talk to the British: “We’re not here to start a war but to prevent one” (p. 83). Fast presents the majority of the colonial men as peaceful and reluctant to go to war. Moses Cooper represents the moral norm for the author. Adam explains, “Father hated guns and only accepted them as a burden we had to bear; closer to his heart was the war of ideas” (p. 32). When the boy Levi talks about killing redcoats, his mother reprimands him: “We don’t talk about killing people in our house” (p. 45). After fighting all day with the redcoats who killed his father, Adam admits to Ruth, “I don’t hate anyone enough to want to kill him” (p. 179). The violence Adam sees makes him literally sick. He becomes hysterical when he has to shoot at the British, wetting his pants. At first he admires the courage and coolness of Solomon Chandler, but later, when Chandler brags about shooting a British officer off his horse, Adam is disgusted. He prefers to be like Cousin Simmons. Simmons respects other human beings and chases away men who are stealing clothes from the dead redcoats.
When Chandler tells Adam to become hardened during killing, because the redcoats started it, the Reverend interrupts him: “Nobody fights in God’s cause. He can only ask God’s forgiveness” (p. 128). Instead of becoming hard, Adam weeps when he sees a dead redcoat. Dr. Cody of Watertown saves the life of a wounded British soldier, and the men are glad to see this act of mercy. Adam recalls all the acts of kindness during the battle, how the men help one another, how the women feed them and give them water. Simmons tells Adam over and over they are fighting to defend their land, and that’s all. They do not want war with the British. Adam only wants to stop the war, even though his father was killed in it: “I was ready to live and let live” (p 141). He is happy when his mother says that she will not hear boasting about killing another human being, after he comes from the battle. Fast treats the incidents as tragic, showing how violence is irrational and comes from a breakdown in human relations.
The Rights of Man
The revolutionary ideals familiar from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence form the background of discussion among the Lexington villagers in their Committee meetings. Most of these ideas are Adam’s recollection of his father’s words and speeches, or Cousin Simmons’ more common paraphrases of them. The colonists base their bid for self-determination, first on the abuses of the British government which is out of touch with their needs, and secondly, on the idea that humans have inherent rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Lexington Committee members are supposed to draft a statement on the rights of man to send to Boston. Moses Cooper and Cousin Simmons discuss this draft at supper in the first chapter. Simmons says that men have rights that come from God. Moses disagrees about putting God into the formula, though Jefferson does in his Declaration (“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”). Moses gives an example of rights in his Uncle Cyrus who is in the rum trade. The British were trying to stop free trade for Americans, but Moses says, “He has the right to trade with the islands because he backs up that right with his life” (p. 26). This is the reason that Simmons later gives to Adam for the war: they have a right to run their lives and their homes the way they want to because they are willing to die for this right, to back it up with action and assertion. Moses prefers to back up his rights with reason rather than violence, but his idea of a right seems based on a kind of individualism, the right to pursue the sort of life one wants. Moses Cooper tells Adam that the “Coopers have been teachers and pastors and free yeomen farmers and ship captains and merchants for a hundred and fifty years on this soil” (p. 15). The plea for God-given rights is the usual one, but Adam says his father calls himself a “Christian-Judaic materialist” (p. 50). Human rights to him mean that one group does not have the authority to rule another group against its will.
There is some discussion of religion in the story, with the hint of freedom of religion as the first right that Americans were interested in. The earliest New Englanders were escaping from the Church of England, which did not accept dissenters. England had a state religion. Moses is proud of his Presbyterian background, a sect that rejected church hierarchy and advocated individual reading of the Bible. The colonists are fiercely independent, in their religion, their lives, and their politics. No one has the right to come between the individual and God, or the individual and his home or income. Simmons says, “A man’s land is his own, Adam. A man’s place is his own. All we wished when we stood out on that common was to tell them that this was our place” (p. 138).
Reason vs. Superstition
The book begins with Adam saying a spell against evil spirits at the well as he draws water. His father rebukes his superstition, claiming that “When God made man, He gave him a mind to consider with and two hands to set things right” (p. 25). He explains to Adam that the Coopers are “reasoning creatures, men who honor the written word, who respect intelligent writing, and who, like the ancient philosophers, look upon argumentation and disputation as avenues toward the deepest truth” (p. 21). This is echoed in Adam’s comment to his grandmother about why he is using his brain to question Christianity. He heard in Boston that “the highest good was to doubt” (p. 13). Life can be improved by questioning and thinking creatively.
Moses is what one would call a humanist in the tradition of the founding fathers of American government–Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. He believes in finding the truth through human reason. The knowledge of human rights comes through reasoning, and the knowledge of right and wrong. Moses believes in the power of reasoning and arguing to such a degree that he persuades the farmers to leave their guns uncocked, thinking they can argue with the British. Fast gives great respect to this point of view but also shows that humans are not only creatures of reason but of passion, and stupidity. Adam recalls bitterly the idealism of his father, “We were going to argue with the British, and talk them out of whatever they intended . . . . We were the most reasonable, talkative people in all probabilities that the world had ever seen” (p. 97).
Cousin Simmons reminds Adam that they have to go to war now because “we’re past arguments. Gun shooting is a declaration, not an argument” (pp. 145-46). They can’t go back to reasoning once the line is crossed because the British would just hang them for criminals. There is a point at which reason has to be backed up with action.
Reason reasserts itself at the end of the story when Levi is afraid of ghosts and now Adam must be the voice of reason, as his father was: “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he says (p. 163). He calms his brother by stating the facts, that the battle is over, and the redcoats are gone, and there are no ghosts. Reason is thus the sign of adult functioning.
Coming of Age