Once upon a time, there was Nathan Hale. An aspiring spy, he was caught and executed by the British, leaving us with the famous line, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” As a spy, Hale accomplished next to nothing. He is now famous.
Once upon the same time, there was Robert Townsend. An aspiring nobody, he was caught up in a swirl of patriotism and ended up as the key player in a ring dedicated to taking down the British in New York. As a spy, Townsend arguably won the war, but instead of receiving fame and fortune, his name remained a secret for 160 years.
George Washington’s Secret Six is a fascinating look at a lesser-known campaign force of the Revolutionary War – the six spies that secreted information out of British-occupied New York into the hands of Washington himself. Did you know these six agents smuggled out a copy of the British naval codebook (allowing the French navy to anticipate every movement of their foes)? Did you know that their invisible ink was so good that the spies sometimes lost track of which piece of paper they had written on? I didn’t.
The only problem with this book is it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a novel or a history book. I would have been fine with one or the other, but the attempted mixture was awkward; the book is meant to read as a factual but rip-roaring tale of espionage rather than a dry historical tome. To keep up that artificial momentum, the author has to employ a good deal of conjecture, and as a result, I kept stumbling over paragraphs that made me wonder if there was any historical basis to back up the author’s claims.
Example (in description of Robert Townsend): “But as the fourth son quickly followed by a long-awaited daughter, he had learned almost from infancy that he had no hope of being heard over his clamorous brothers or coddled as his mother’s darling, so he separated himself by being the quiet one of such a rowdy bunch.” (p. 72)
AHEM. I happen to be a fourth child, thank you very much. That Townsend was overwhelmed by his siblings could be true… but to me, it sounds like a wild guess on the part of the author in an attempt to build a character’s depth. Whee.
Example 2: “As Robert Townsend rode in… he could not have helped but admire the beauty of the foliage and the crispness in the September air.” (p. 193)
Again, I can’t bring myself to swallow this at face value. Maybe the leaves really were stunning on that particular day, but it is every bit as likely that the sky was pouring rain, the place smelled like sweaty, damp horses, and the guy had a splash of mud on his nose.
These lines made me wonder where the line was between fact and fiction; they couldn’t ruin the book for me, but they did crop up with regularity. Fortunately, the (verifiable) details were enough to carry the rest of the book. The tale was fascinating and I am glad I read it, but when there are historical blanks to be filled in, I prefer to do the daydreaming myself.
Christina graduated college last May and is employed as a grant writer. She is an avid reader, with favorite authors including Daphne duMaurier, Mary Stewart and Anya Seton.