February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

AMC’s New Series, ‘Turn’, and Electrifying Espionage Reads | Media Mania

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Turn, an AMC television series based on Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies (Bantam, 2006), tells the tale of America’s first espionage ring, an unlikely group of novice spies who were instrumental in changing the course of the Revolutionary War. Part historical period drama and part intrigue-packed thriller, the show centers around Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a farmer living in Setauket, Long Island, during the British occupation. He and a handful of like-minded childhood friends join together to form the Culper Ring, an intelligence-gathering network tasked with keeping General Washington informed about British activities in the area.

Turn CastThe would-be nation’s turmoil extends to the cast of characters, many of whom are flesh-and-blood iterations of actual historical figures, as they wrestle with their own inner conflicts and relationships. These include Anna Strong (Heather Lind), Patriot sympathizer and Abe’s first love; Abe’s father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), an apparent Tory; Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numerich), Culper Ring organizer; and Major John André (J J Field), head of British Intelligence. Teens can visit the official website to preview the show, which launches on April 6.

The Origins of American Espionage

Turn1Viewers with an interest in the fact behind the fiction will relish Rose’s compelling nonfiction work, recently reissued with a media tie-in cover (Bantam, 2014; Gr 10 Up). The author skillfully weaves meticulous research and abundant excerpts from primary documents into a lively narrative brimming with intrigue, betrayals, danger, and heroic acts. Setting events against a vibrantly painted backdrop of British-occupied America, Rose traces the origins, evolution, and vital-to-the-cause significance of the homegrown Culper Ring and its brave but untried participants.

Captivating details and well-told back stories bring historical figures to life: Nathan Hale, courageous but ill-suited to subterfuge, executed as a spy in 1776; Washington, crafty intelligencer and behind-the-scenes string-puller who understood the military necessity of covert operations and continually refined his methodology; Tallmadge, who skillfully manipulated his group of contentious and often skittish secret agents; Woodhull (code name “Samuel Culper”), a cautious man of integrity who was never comfortable with his task; General Benedict Arnold, “valiant soldier” who turned resentful after being passed up for promotion and then turned coat against his country; and many more. Rose also traces the technical aspects of early American espionage, including the use of courier systems, secret codes and ciphers, and “sympathetic stain” (invisible ink). Filled with insights and often-wry observations, this book will satiate teens who enjoy a meaty and demanding read.

Nonfiction Treats

George Washington SpymasterThomas B. Allen’s George Washington, Spymaster (National Geographic, 2004; Gr 6 Up) covers some of the same territory in a succinct and vivaciously written account enhanced with primary quotes. Instances of espionage are presented alongside clearly related historical events. In these fast-turning pages, a British mole is uncovered among Boston’s Sons of Liberty, various spy networks flourish, Benjamin Franklin outmaneuvers veteran European agents to pull off a covert coup in France, brave women convey information inside balls of yarn or buttons, and an astonishing act of treason is stumbled upon. Spy terminology is applied and defined, and a look at the tools of the trade covers invisible ink and ciphers (Tallmadge’s number code is appended and readers can crack encrypted messages hidden throughout the book). Cheryl Harness’s pen-and-ink sketches are joined by reproductions of documents and artworks to add visual appeal to this absorbing and informative tome. Designed to look like 18th-century leaflet, the diminutive volume is just the right size to tuck into a backpack or pocket for clandestine perusal.

Revolutionary SpiesAppropriate for younger teens, reluctant readers, or kids who love to browse, Nel Yomtov’s Revolutionary War Spies (Capstone, 2014; Gr 6 Up) pairs straightforward text with a slick layout. After an introductory overview, the book profiles five undercover agents. Arnold and Hale are joined by counterfeiter-turned-informant Isaac Ketcham, who uncovered a plot to kidnap Washington; the daring Lydia Darragh, who derailed a British attack with her cunningly conveyed scraps of intel; and Loyalist Ann Bates, who played the role of peddler at a Continental Army camp while in fact purveying details about American weaponry, troops, and supplies. Spread against colorful backdrops cobbled together from paintings, engravings, photos, and maps, the brief narrative covers the basics and will perhaps whet appetites for further investigation.

Notorius Benedict ArnoldAmerica’s most infamous spy is made tangible and multifaceted in Steve Sheinkin’s superb biography, The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Roaring Brook, 2010; Gr 7 Up). It will be hard for readers not to be impressed by the newly appointed Colonel Arnold as he selflessly leads stalwart troops on a harrowing starvation-plagued march through hundreds of miles of wilderness on a mad quest to seize Quebec from the British (1775), masterminds an against-the-odds naval battle on Lake Champlain (1776), or defies orders to seize victory from the jaws of defeat by recklessly storming a key fortification during the Battle of Saratoga (1777). However, Sheinkin also touches upon the ease with which the ambitious Arnold acquired enemies, his knack for making poor decisions and total lack of political skills, and the boiling resentment that fueled his later decisions. Chapters describing André’s life and career are interspersed throughout, foreshadowing the moment when their fates intersect. Incorporating frequent quotes from primary sources, the narrative combines well-chosen details, moments of humor, and blood-and-guts action into an absolutely riveting retelling of history. Youngsters will be enthralled, and educators will find many fascinating and fact-filled episodes worth reading aloud to students.

Series viewers can read more about the Culper Ring by visiting several fun-to-browse websites. “George Washington’s Mount Vernon” provides a quick introduction and a multitude of topical links. The University of Michigan’s Clements Library’s “Spy Letters of the American Revolution” offers images of and info about important espionage missives (along with a “Teachers’ Lounge” section for using these materials in the classroom). The National Women’s History Museum’s “Clandestine Women: Spies in American History” includes an American Revolution-era section that highlights the mysterious Culper agent “355” (Tallmadge’s code for lady), Anna Strong, and other furtive females.

Tales Well Told

Sophia's WarTwo works of historical fiction feature strong female protagonists. Sophia’s War (S & S, 2012; Gr 5-9) begins in 1776, after the 12-year-old Manhattan resident witnesses the hanging of Nathan Hale. As the British seize control of the city, Sophia is desperate to discover the fate of her brother William, who had joined the rebel army. Posing as Tories, her family is allowed to remain in their home, but are forced to house British officers. The first is the dashing Lieutenant John André, who charms Sophia with his gentle manners and love of the arts. However, when she finally locates William at a British prisoner of war camp with appalling conditions, André refuses to intercede, and her brother’s eventual death galvanizes her into taking action. Three years later, she finds an opportunity to help the fight for independence and extract her vengeance when she joins the Culper Ring and is placed as a maid in the headquarters of General Henry Clinton, where André, now a major, serves as chief of staff and is about to meet Arnold. Convincingly told in Sophia’s voice, Avi’s novel is a gripping mix of historical fact and suspenseful action.

ChainsSet in the same time and place, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (S & S, 2008; Gr 6 Up) is narrated by Isabel, a slave forced to labor for an abusive Loyalist couple. Hoping to gain freedom for herself and her five-year-old sister, she reluctantly agrees to spy for the rebels, but is betrayed by a Continental officer and handed back to the Locktons. Despite the great physical and emotional suffering inflicted upon her by a cruel mistress, Isabel finally realizes that her soul cannot be chained, and finds the strength to carry on, sneaking food to her friend Curzon, also a slave and now a prisoner of war, and audaciously planning escapes for both of them. The seemingly straightforward first-person narrative is beautifully evocative; vivid details of day-to-day occurrences and political happenings are perfectly balanced with glimpses at Isabel’s inner life as she endures heart-wrenching sorrows, gleans hard-won revelations, and wrestles with issues of loyalty and trust. Well-developed characters, fast-paced action, and a telling rich in emotion make this book impossible to put down. The story continues with the author’s Forge (2010; both Atheneum), which places the focus on Curzon and shifts the action to the battlefield.

The Year of the HangmanIn Gary Blackwood’s stirring work of alternate history, the Continental Army has been thoroughly trounced by the British, George Washington is imprisoned and awaiting execution, and escaped rebel leaders are living in hiding. It’s 1777, called The Year of the Hangman (Dutton, 2002; Gr 8 Up) because the three sevens resemble a miniature gallows. In London, 15-year-old Creighton Brown is busy with his usual pursuits of card-playing, carousing, and ignoring his studies. Fed up with his uncontrollable behavior, his mother has him shanghaied and shipped off to the colonies, where his uncle, the harsh Colonel Gower, will straighten him out.

Once there, Creighton’s party is captured by privateers and taken to Spanish-held New Orleans. Forced by Gower to pose as an indentured servant and act as spy, he is placed in the home of Ben Franklin and put to work at his print shop. Living among these “backward Yankeys,” Creighton soon develops genuine respect for their intelligence, honesty, and honor, as well as satisfaction in his own labor. Revelations about the fate of his father, a British officer supposedly killed in action in Carolina, and close-hand observations of his unscrupulous uncle soon have him rethinking where his loyalties lie. Placed in danger and caught between opposing sides, he struggles to find the courage to take the right path. Rapid-fire action, strongly drawn characters and setting, and an ingenious reinterpretation of historical events and individuals make this book a delight to read and discuss.

One Dead Spy“Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales,” a fact-paced graphic novel series, utilizes a Scheherazade-style framework to convey history with humor. About to be executed, Hale is swallowed by a giant history book, acquires knowledge of hundreds of years of U.S. happenings, and returns to the gallows to forestall his fate by sharing stories with a comically clueless hangman and tomato-nosed British provost. In One Dead Spy (Abrams, 2012; Gr 5-9), Hale relates his own past, describing his days as a Yale student, leaving his job as school teacher to join the Connecticut militia, important battles and sieges, and his ill-fated espionage mission. Written and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation), the pages are crammed with well-researched information that cover the topic in impressive depth as well as funny asides that keep the tone light. Brief biographies of the major players are appended, along with a mini-comic about Crispus Attucks (“First to Defy, First to Die!). This engaging and entertaining look at history will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Publication Information

ROSE, Alexander. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. Media tie-in ed. Bantam. 2014. pap. $17. ISBN 9780553392593.

ALLEN, Thomas B. George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War. National Geographic. 2004. pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781426300417.

YOMTOV, Nel. Revolutionary War Spies. Capstone. 2014. PLB $23.49. ISBN 9781429699778.

SHEINKIN, Steve. The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery. Roaring Brook/Flash Point. 2010. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781596434868; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781250024602 (Square Fish).

AVI. Sophia’s War. S & S/Beach Lane. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442414419; ebook $6.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-1443-3; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9781442414426.

ANDERSON, Laurie Halse. Chains. S & S/Atheneum. 2008. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-0585-1; ebook $7.99. ISBN 9781416998617; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978141690586-8.

BLACKWOOD, Gary. The Year of the Hangman. Penguin. 2002. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780142400784.
HALE, Nathan. One Dead Spy. “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” Series. illus. by author. Amulet. 2012. Tr $12.95. ISBN 978141970396-6.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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