Between now and the announcement of the winner on January 23, I’m taking a closer look at the five finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. Check out part one, on Wheels of Change by Sue Macy. Today, I’ll look at The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin.
If Arnold had died from his wounds at the Battle of Saratoga, we would think of him today as one of the all-time great American heroes. Aside from Washington, we’d say, he did more to win our Revolution than anyone.
For most of us, I suspect, the only thing we know about Benedict Arnold is that he is America’s most famous traitor. Sheinkin’s book, therefore, is a revelation, in more ways than one. He brings the full story of what he calls “one of the best action/adventure stories in American history” to life in this extraordinary book. Unlike most nonfiction aimed at young people, Sheinkin uses almost no visual material–a few maps and a reproduction of one painting–and focuses on telling his story as an old-fashioned novelistic narrative.
At the center of this narrative is the volatile personality of Arnold himself: impossibly brave, brilliant, attractive, foolhardy, vain, and ultimately treacherous. And as the above quotation notes, Arnold may have been one of the most important generals in the Revolutionary War, making his decision to turn on his country at once vitally important and utterly perplexing: almost as if George S. Patton had gone over to the Nazis at the height of World War II.
At times it seems that Arnold’s life writes itself: his increasingly risky, yet increasingly heroic maneuvers in the war are full of action and suspense, and (almost incidentally) grant the reader a new perspective on the ground level of fighting during the Revolution. Even more ridiculously suspenseful is the account of Arnold’s very nearly successful betrayal of his country, foiled by a series of almost comically small errors which he could never have foreseen.
How did this man’s name become a synonym for treachery? At the crucial moment of Arnold’s decision to approach the British with his plan to betray the revolution, Sheinkin is strangely silent about Arnold’s motivations, probably because he is always scrupulous about sourcing his material and there seems to be little evidence of what Arnold was thinking at the most significant moment of his life. Nevertheless, Sheinkin gives more than enough details about Arnold’s character to allow the reader to speculate.
Arnold seems to have been obsessed with his reputation, a large part of which was tied to his monetary status in life. As the war dragged on, he found himself in huge amounts of personal debt, and at the same time, he felt (probably with reason) that his contributions to the Revolution were being ignored by his superiors and Congress. It seems that the combination of lack of respect and lack of money simply became too much of a burden and he conceived a scheme to win back both by switching sides. It is one of the book’s greatest successes that the reader feels genuinely aggrieved for Arnold at the various slights from his superiors, giving Arnold sympathy for at least half of his motive.
Through all of this drama, Sheinkin remains at all times fully in control of his narrative, expertly weaving in the story of the British spy who eventually colluded with Arnold, as well the separate worlds of politics, military tactics, social history, and personal accounts of the events. I have now read four of the five finalists for YALSA’s nonfiction award, and though they are all excellent, this is the one that stand out for me as an example of nonfiction at its absolute best: scrupulously researched without ever being dry, illuminating a subject unknown to many, and written in exciting, vivid prose.
— Mark Flowers, currently reading Dreamsleeves by Coleen Murtagh Paratore