Biography of a Traitor

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery
By Steve Sheinkin
(Roaring Brook Press,New York, 2010, $19.99)

Benedict Arnold’s name has become synonymous with treason; yet few Americans know the extent of his contributions to the Revolution or his reasons for betraying it. In The Notorious Benedict Arnold, Steve Sheinkin details the first – and does his best to unravel the latter.

Teens and adults interested in military history will enjoy Sheinkin’s account of Benedict Arnold’s rise in the Continental Army. Often flouting the advice of senior officers,Arnold mounted successful offensives when other commanders would have lurked or fled. Sheinkin’s prose is vivid: readers accompany Arnoldand his troops on a long, cold, hungry march through Quebec and glimpse misery on the battlefield. Off the field, Revolutionary America springs to life: the Patriots who despise suspected Loyalists, the wealthy colonists who attend balls with British officers, the thugs from both factions who prowl no-man’s land, the ordinary citizens who “just want the war to go away.”

Through it all, the character of Benedict Arnold emerges: a brilliant general and risk-taker who, despite his intelligence, took everything, including political strategy, personally. Both idealistic and materialistic,Arnold sacrificed his first fortune to fight for independence, but later enraged Philadelphia’s Patriots by displaying his wealth. Sheinkin does not presume to state why Arnold defected to the British. He shows readersArnold’s mounting pressures and allows them to draw their own conclusions.

Like the best narrative nonfiction writers, Sheinkin employs the techniques of fiction to develop character and build suspense. When possible, he uses excerpts from diaries, letters, and memoirs to enliven his accounts of events and descriptions of individuals. Historical figures, including the boastful, bullying Ethan Allen and the cool-headed George Washington, spring to life on the page. Heightening the tension, Sheinkin alternates Arnold’s story with a very different narrative: the career of John André, the suave British officer who finally collaborated with Arnold.

As gripping as an adventure novel, The Notorious Benedict Arnold shows the complexity behind one of the most vilified people in American history. It is also a rich, multifaceted look at the man and his era.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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