The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin (2010, Roaring Book Press; 353 pages).
Everybody knows who Benedict Arnold was: the famous traitor of the Revolutionary War. But ask someone for the details of the story -- how Arnold came to be a traitor, why he did what he did, what the details of his treachery were, what kind of a man he was, and whatever became of him -- and you're likely to get nothing but a blank stare.
Steve Sheinkin's The Notorious Benedict Arnold, a wildly entertaining YA biography fit for adults as well, tells the entire history of our nation's most infamous turncoat, from his reckless, attention-grabbing youth in Norwich, Conn., to his celebrity as America's most daring and successful revolutionary war general (yes -- even more successful than George Washington), to the incredible story of how and why he betrayed his country. As told with riveting immediacy by Sheinkin, this is an epic adventure tale of our nation's exciting, bloody birth, and the huge role played in it by Benedict Arnold. It's a tale that few people know, but one that we all should know.
Sheinkin's book (a YALSA-ALA award-winner for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction) is exhaustively researched, never straying from fact into speculation. He recounts with incredible detail -- using letters and quotes from several historical memoirs of people who were there -- Arnold's amazing and heroic victories and defeats. The reader may be surprised to learn that Arnold most likely saved the revolution -- and by extension, America -- at least twice during the war, displaying great courage and daring that made him a hero and a celebrity throughout the colonies. Everyone in the Americas and in Britain (at least those in the mother country who followed news of the war) knew who he was. He was the one who'd led the charge when the rebels took Fort Ticonderoga, invaded Canada and won a daring victory at St. John's, where he captured the warship George, solidifying his reputation as a brilliant strategist, and somewhat of a loose cannon. He was the one who who'd led a thousand volunteers on a desperate, amazing and ultimately disastrous 500-mile march through the Maine wilderness to attack Quebec, sustaining a serious leg wound in the charge on the city's walls. He'd saved the rebel fleet and probably the revolution by outwitting the vastly superior British navy on Lake Champlain in the thrilling and desperate Battle of Valcour Island. He outwitted the British again at Fort Stanwix, and won yet another daring victory at Saratoga, where he suffered another terrible leg wound. But throughout the war, despite all of his brilliant victories, Arnold was fighting not just the British, but the Continental Congress and many of his fellow Colonial Army generals as well.
A mercurial personality with no talent for politics, Arnold rubbed many people the wrong way, and was constantly at odds with his superiors over tactics and strategy. He also felt slighted on many occasions, judging that he was over and over again denied the credit due him for his victories. And, as Sheinkin shows, Arnold was right. He was being slighted, passed over for promotion and even relieved of command, the victim of backstabbing, gossip and rumor. Arnold, feeling ever more alienated and abused, had given a lot to his country: his health (he was nearly crippled by the wounds to his leg), his wealth, and, at least in some measure, his reputation. All of these things, combined with his distressed financial situation, led him to make the ultimate decision to betray his country and the trust of his friend and commanding officer, George Washington.
Sheinkin reveals the details of the traitor's plot brilliantly, building to it slowly, the way Arnold's alienation and dissatisfaction built inside of him, over time. He introduces a key figure in Arnold's plan, the dashing British officer John Andre, early in the book, explaining the connection between Andre and the woman who became Arnold's wife, Peggy Shippen, a connection that would later play a pivotal role in Arnold's plan to betray his country. By weaving Andre's story into the book in this way, Sheinkin creates an atomosphere of suspense, and keeps readers turning the pages, dying to know what happens next. And readers will be shocked at how close Arnold came to pulling off his plan, a plan that most assuredly would have ended the Revolution in defeat for the Americans, if not for, as Sheinkin puts it, "an absurdly improbable series of events" that saved the fledgling nation.
The Notorious Benedict Arnold is an amazing tale, told by a master in a completely entertaining and exciting fashion. The author of King George: What Was His Problem?, Sheinkin knows how to make history come alive for readers of all ages, including teens. His writing is accessible and fun, and the story he tells -- largely through first-person accounts -- is a thrilling one, packed with adventure, astonishing twists and explosive battle scenes. It's a book that, once begun, is nearly impossible to put down. And the best part is, it's a story that few people know, and it's all true. My guess is that teens who read this book, particularly boys, will love it, and it just might leave them wanting to read more about ... gulp ... history.
An excerpt from The Notorious Benedict Arnold:
It was a beautiful place to die. The sky above the woods glowed blue, and the leaves on the trees were a riot of fall colors: sunshine yellow, campfire orange, blood red. In a grassy clearing, a small group of American soldiers quickly built a gallows. It was a simple structure, made of two tall, forked logs stuck into the ground, with a third log laid horizontally between the forks. The soldiers tied one end of a rope to the middle of the horizontal log, letting the other end hang down. There was no platform to stand on, no trapdoor to fall through -- the prisoner would have to climb onto a wagon with the rope looped around his throat. Horses would jerk the wagon forward, and he would tumble off the back. The force of his falling weight should be enough to snap the man's neck. As the soldiers worked, a crowd began to gather. Officers rode up and sat still on their horses. Soldiers and citizens from nearby towns gradually filled the clearing. By late afternoon, hundreds of people surrounded the gallows, and thousands lined the road leading to it. It was a somber crowd. People spoke in whispers, if at all. Shortly before five o'clock, a wagon carrying a plain, pine coffin rattled along the road and into the clearing. The driver stopped his horses just beyond the gallows, with the wagon lined up under the dangling rope. The ghoulish figure of a hangman appeared, his face sloppily smeared with black axle grease to disguise his identity. He stood by the wagon and waited. A few minutes after five, the distant sounds of a fife and drum band reached the clearing. The music grew louder, and the crowd recognized the tune -- a funeral march. Soon, the players came into view, stepping slowly and heavily in time with the music. Behind the band marched the prisoner. He wore a spotless officer's uniform, his long hair pulled back and tied neatly behind his neck. When he reached the clearing he saw the gallows and stopped. The color drained from his skin. He swallowed, making a visibly painful effort to force the saliva down his throat. Then he began marching again, walking steadily toward his death. But this is the end of the story. The story begins thirty-nine years earlier and 125 miles to the east, in the busy port town of Norwich, Connecticut. The story begins with Benedict Arnold.
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