The Glorious Fourth, as they used to call it, celebrates the birth of a nation whose independence was only declared with the signing of a document in July of 1776. Proving independence took five more tortuous, draining, confusing years, ending with a success so improbable that most of the participants chalked it up to Providence. Of all the ups and downs of those years, no day was darker than that bringing news that the patriots’ most brilliant, decisive, and successful military leader had defected to the other side—and had planned to turn over vital information. George Washington later said it was the worst moment of the whole war for him. But Providence was at work there, too, for the traitor’s plans failed by the chanciest chain of circumstances, and he barely escaped with his life.
What kind of life was it?
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: a True Story of Adventure, Heroism and Treachery, by Steve Sheinkin. Flash Point (Roaring Brook), 2010. 307 pages. Age/interest level: 12-up. (Winner of the 2011 Horn Book Award for nonfiction and the 2012 ALA-YALSA Award for Excellence in YA Nonfiction)
The author admits he’s been obsessed with Benedict Arnold since boyhood, and it shows. In a good way. He has an easy familiarity with his subject that makes you think you’re meeting Arnold for the first time. Many of the young adults it was intended for will be meeting Arnold for the first time, and may be impressed with how contemporary he seems. His exaggerated sense of “honor” may be hard to relate to these days, but the touchiness about being dissed and the tendency to rationalize is all too common.
A highly readable narrative takes us through little- known career highlights (such as “The Battle of Valcour Island” and “The Last Man Out of Canada”) of one who could have been celebrated in story and song if he’d only been lucky enough to catch a fatal bullet on the battlefield. He was possibly the 18th-century equivalent of ADHD (“Arnold could never stand inaction. So he decided to invade Canada”), with a knack for bold schemes, such as attacking Fort Ticonderoga and making off with the artillery (“It was not quite as crazy as it sounds”). Good biographies take the subject at his word and give him plenty of opportunities to speak. Here’s Arnold nursing resentment in his heart, a feeling that would contribute to his dark deed:
Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen . . .
The treason account is intense, as riveting as fiction, even if we know what happened. But there’s some imbalance in the buildup. In chapter 1, a condemned prisoner approaches the gallows: who is this? Young readers may assume it’s Arnold, who actually lived for many years after his disgrace. The unnamed gentleman is Major John Andre, Arnold’s British agent, who is given almost equal time with the main subject—a literary device, for suspense and contrast, but to a reader unfamiliar with the story, it’s mostly confusing. Much more, and the book would have to be titled Andre and Arnold: Profiles in Honor and Duplicity.
That’s a minor problem: another is a smattering of 18th-century swearing (the G.d. word) and possibly having to explain to a 12-year-old what an aphrodisiac is (Arnold was an apothecary, or pharmacist, before war brought out the natural soldier in him). But as adventure story and character study, Notorious is worth reading and talking about, for one way to learn about ourselves and others is by comparison: “therein lies the key to understanding Arnold. He didn’t feel guilty. He was always able to convince himself that what he was doing was right.” Do we know anyone like that? Are we ever like that?
For more biography, see our reviews of Steve Jobs and accompanying links. God’s heroes tend not to be so flashy, but their influence is longer lasting, such as Athanasius, Guido de Bres, Martin Luther, and other leaders of the Reformation.