Tuesday, December 13, 2016

George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

A fascinating tale rather tepidly told
Having recently read Ron Chernow’s excellent biography Washington: A Life, the idea of a book that focused on George Washington’s espionage program really appealed to me. George Washington’s Secret Six, published in 2013, was written by Brian Kilmeade, a Fox News host, and Don Yaeger, a sports journalist. This book came up as a Kindle Daily Deal, and I bought it on impulse without knowing anything about the authors. They definitely wrote the book with the intention of producing a popular bestseller, rather than providing the kind of critical analysis one would get from an academic historian. If that’s the case, however, why is the book so dull? Though I approached the subject matter with my interest already primed, I found Kilmeade and Yaeger’s dry treatment only curbed my enthusiasm.

The book opens with two chapters that provide an oversimplified synopsis of the Revolutionary War up to 1777. The authors then proceed to tell how Major Benjamin Tallmadge, under the direction of Washington, established a spy ring in Manhattan and Long Island, which were territories under British control. We meet the individual spies as they enter into the fold, learn their back stories and motivations for participating, and hear how they established their network of secret communication. The authors then attempt to illuminate the important role these brave spies played in determining the outcome of the war.

In a brief note at the beginning, the authors warn the reader that the book contains fictional conversations between the personages in the book. The warning hardly seems necessary, however, since so little of such dialogue actually appears in the book. A more common technique of the authors is to tell us what’s going on in the historical characters’ minds, employing a retroactive psychoanalysis that relies heavily on conjectural assumption. When such fictionalized passages do occur, they feel awkward and rather pointless because they do nothing to increase the drama of the narrative. In fact, one thing sorely missing from this book is drama. We hear about the spies transporting letters written in invisible ink, often in code, but Kilmeade and Yaeger never fully convey the import of the letters’ contents or the life-and-death consequences of discovery for those who carry them. Unfortunately the one agent who suffered the most for her service is the one about whom the least is known.

The book climaxes with Benedict Arnold’s traitorous treachery and Major John André’s capture. While Tallmadge played an important part in that tale, the Secret Six don’t seem to feature in it much at all. I will confess that I don’t think I could have even named all the members of the Secret Six until I got to the roll call in the epilogue. The book concentrates mostly on two or three of the six, and there are other minor figures who help out, begging the question why we don’t have a Secret Seven or Eight. I never felt thoroughly engaged in the author’s narrative, and by the end I was just reading to get it done. Contrast this with Chernow, who manages to make Washington’s most mundane actions seem interesting and compelling. The story of Washington and Tallmadge’s espionage ring is inherently fascinating, but that doesn’t come across in this telling of it.
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