Ken's Reviews > The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery

The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin
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Aug 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: finished-in-2012, nonfiction, ya
Read from August 10 to 14, 2012

Good nonfiction for young adult readers is harder to come by than good fiction. Like cavalry over the hill, then, rides The Notorious Benedict Arnold, a book whose ending we know before we start -- but will the kids? I suppose it depends on the curriculum, when they get American history, and to what extent. But even for veterans like me, the book offers details either forgotten or never known.

Benedict Arnold couldn't get out of his own personality's way. His father of the same name, a drunken disgrace, lit the fire of ambition and shame in his son at a young age. Conveniently enough, the Revolutionary War would provide the backdrop Benedict needed to show his mettle. And mettle he showed, at Saratoga and in Quebec, where he came this close to making Canada our 14th colony (some would say it happened anyway, but these would be Ugly Americans making uglier jokes). During actions at Quebec and Saratoga, Arnold was dealt serious injuries from gunfire. And though he lost a lot of blood, he sadly did not lose his life, missing two golden opportunities to go down among the Giants of the Revolution like Lafayette, Von Steuben, Ethan Allen, and Washington. Instead, he would outlive his heroic chances and allow his sullen, jealous, angry temperament a chance to win notoriety for quite another reputation, one driven by money and relentless ambition.

The lesser star (and fall guy) of the book is concurrent story of Major John André. He played spy to Arnold's traitor, and their tango ended badly for him. Author Sheinkin tells us that André was one of those singularly handsome men who charmed women and men alike with his personality and intelligence. Unfortunately, this intelligence would forsake him in a few key seconds that would seal his fate. After meeting Arnold behind enemy lines near West Point, he was fleeing south toward the British-held city of New York. Alas, he did not think through the actions he would take if he were stopped by Americans. He foolishly said he was British by assuming he was far enough south and already among Loyalists. In retrospect, this made no sense. Had he said he was American, the outcome would have worked to his advantage no matter what. That is, if his interceptors were Americans (which they were), they would have let him by with the handwritten pass he held from Arnold. And even if they were British, they would have seized him and taken him as a "prisoner" to General Clinton -- the very man who sent him out on the mission -- down in New York. At age 29, the dashing Major André had written the opening lines to his own final act.

Some might say he was luckier than Arnold, who would survive and escape Washington's frantic attempts to capture and make an example of him. Arnold made a few forays wearing a redcoat -- burning New London, CT, for one -- but the war soon ended and he spent the remainder of his years in England and Canada with ignominy and Peggy Shippen as his mates. Even the side he defected to held him in low esteem after the war. Washington had offered André's life in exchange for Arnold's, but Genl. Clinton, as much as he loved André, could not pull the trigger on this tempting deal because of the unwritten rule: You never, but NEVER, turn over a turncoat.

When all is said and done, you will learn a lot more about Benedict Arnold's character and personality, his military genius and derring do, and his innate ability to annoy superiors in the military (where, quite frankly, many men on both sides acted like middle school children in their endless bickering, resentments, intrigues, and calculated slander and libel of each other's character). You will enjoy some military strategizing, take in some battle-day narratives, and learn just how close the colonies came to losing this war. And yes, you will see the major role of irony and chance, and just how comfortable both of these things are in the fertile grounds of history. An awful lot of things had to go wrong for Benedict Arnold's plan to fail. Sheinkin shows just how lucky the Americans got with a series of wild coincidences on the fateful day the West Point trap was set to spring. He also provides the perfect coda for the book by describing a most curious monument made in Arnold's "honor" at Saratoga. Curious and symbolically appropriate, I'd say.

Recommended for young readers in need of some bracing nonfiction, for a change.
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