Between chapters, Paulsen intersperses one to two page essays containing factual accounts of the world, customs, weapons, and life at the time of the Revolutionary War. These essays, while breaking the narrative tension, serve to illustrate the world in which Samuel lived and travelled. "At that time, there was only one prison in New York, so the British held their prisoners in warehouse buildings or on Royal Navy ships anchored in the harbor. Although these ships were built to hold 350 sailors, the British kept over one thousand prisoners at a time on board. The only latrines were buckets, which soon became full and spilled into the prisoners’ sleeping quarters."
Paulsen addresses not only the brutal violence of war, but the issues of disease and sanitation. He answers with disturbing realism the question of every twelve-year-old – what do they do when they have to go to the bathroom. From his depictions of changing bundles of fresh grass from beneath an unconscious patient to the tragic death of a beloved character "streaming with dysentery over a slit trench in an agony of jabbering delirium, killed by dehydration," Paulsen’s images of the dirt and violence of war are anything but "antiseptic."
If Samuel in his solitary self-reliance is the body and mind of Woods Runner, the characters he encounters along his journey bring forth the heart and soul. After Samuel is knocked unconscious in an early attempt to free his parents, he is taken in by a group on their way to join a Special Rangers force known as Morgan’s Rifles. Samuel’s nurse in this endeavor is "John. John Cooper, but most just call me Coop." Coop is warm-hearted, blunt-spoken, rough, and delightfully colorful. "I’m the night watch tonight, plus I’ve been doctoring you and I thought you might lose your light during the night. You been breathing like an old pump. I guess you was just sucking air hard because you didn’t die. Course it could still happen. I had a cousin go kicked in the head by a mule – they’s fractious, mules – and he lived for nigh on two months ‘fore he lost his light. He never talked none except now and again a kind of moan – like somebody stepping on a duck." I can’t help it; I love Coop. Anyone who can treat an abscessing head wound with a "spit and ‘baccy poultice" and raw affection is hard not to love.