The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin

  • Title: The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery
  • Author: Steve Sheinkin
  • Publisher: Flash Point
  • Year Published: 2010
  • ISBN: 1596434864
  • List Price: $19.99
  • Page Count: 352
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Winner; YALSA Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners; Beacon of Freedom Award; New York Charlotte Award Master List

Author information: Steve Sheinkin used to be a professional textbook writer, until he got fed up with the restrictions he kept running into and decided to write narrative non-fiction instead. He talks about this, as well as other interesting facts about himself, on his biography page on his website. His website also includes links to his books (including his most recent title, The Port Chicago 50,  that published in January) and author events. A video of Sheinkin thanking the YALSA committee for selecting Benedict Arnold as the YALSA nonfiction winner can be found here. In it, he talks about the process of writing and publishing this book and why Benedict Arnold appealed to him so much as an author.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Horn Book Magazine all had complimentary things to say about Sheinkin’s book and gave it starred reviews. All of these reviews mentioned Sheinkin’s ability to make history come alive and his engaging treatment of a historical figure who is well recognized but whose story is mostly unknown. Kirkus says that “Sheinkin sees Arnold as America’s ‘original action hero’ and succeeds in writing a brilliant, fast-paced biography that reads like an adventure novel”, an opinion that the other reviews echo.

Readers annotation: He almost cost the Patriots the American Revolution. But before that, he helped them win it. How much do you know about Benedict Arnold?

Summary: Benedict Arnold is a household name, but few people know anything about him other than the fact that he betrayed the Americans during the Revolutionary War. This book gives a comprehensive biography of the man behind the betrayal, starting with his childhood, growing up with a drunk father who squandered his family’s money, and then looking at the role he played during the war. After childhood, Arnold built a successful shipping company, but the British taxes and the unrest they caused began to take a toll on his business and make him eager to fight against them. He quickly rose through the ranks during the war, leading a harrowing expedition to Canada in order to take Quebec, leading the ragtag American fleet against the British navy and escaping from their clutches, and leading the charge at the Battle of Saratoga, even though he was injured in the process. Due to political considerations and his own arrogance, sense of entitlement, and strict code of honor, Arnold became dissatisfied with his treatment and decided to plot with the British in order to bring a quick end to the war. His British co-conspirator was caught and hanged as a spy, and Arnold lived out the rest of his life in disgrace and poverty in England.

Evaluation: This book was a fascinating read, and Sheinkin does a great deal to present the reader with a complete picture of Benedict Arnold. While Sheinkin does not shy away at portraying the man’s numerous faults and questionable decisions, he does offer the reader explanations for why he may have acted the way he did, and the reader can’t help but feel some sympathy for a man who exhibited such bravery and loyalty to the Patriots and received little gratitude in response. Sheinkin’s storytelling is gripping and suspenseful, and even though readers know the inevitable conclusion of the story, they are still eager to learn more about this remarkable hero/villain and his life. Sheinkin masterfully builds tension and keeps the reader intrigued with short chapters and foreshadowing that makes this a hard book to put down.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 This book is historically rich and detailed while not being dry, and would be an excellent pick for teachers focused on the new Common Core standards. Readers will be so interested in the plot, involving duels, deceit, battles at sea, and wartime politics that they won’t even realize how much they are learning, or how expertly Sheinkin has drawn them into  Lithe Revolutionary War time period.
  • Popularity4/5  As mentioned above, this book will appeal to even readers who do not traditionally enjoy non-fiction. The story is fast-paced and engaging, and while the historical detail is there, it does not slow down the storytelling. Potential readers may shy away from this title thinking that it’s going to be boring because it is non-fiction, but any reader who picks it up and gives it a chance will be instantly captivated
  • Appeal factors: American history, narrative non-fiction, war, duels, complex characters.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Readers who were drawn to Benedict Arnold’s daring actions, bold escapes, and dangerous secrets may enjoy Seymour Reit’s Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy. Like Sheinkin’s book, this is a true story about bravery and intrigue set against the backdrop of war. Reit’s book follows Emma Edmonds, a woman during the Civil War who enlisted in the Union Army at great personal risk and her experiences in the war.
  2. For those readers who can’t get enough of Sheinkin, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers could be a good fit. Written in Sheinkin’s signature fast-pased style, this book focuses on an elaborate plot in the 1870s to steal Lincoln’s body, and will appeal to fans of The Notorious Benedict Arnold who enjoyed the intrigue and conspiracy portions of the narrative. 

Book talk ideas: Ask the audience how many people have ever heard of Benedict Arnold. After a show of hands, ask if anybody knows anything about him, other than the fact that he betrayed the Patriots during the Revolution. Ask some “did you know” questions about his life, such as if they knew about his trek to Canada, his naval battle, or the fact that he was injured during the Battle of Saratoga, which his leadership helped win. Perhaps talk about his flaws–his temper and his sense of entitlement–and how these flaws, combined with political actions outside of his control turned him into the villain of the Revolution with whom we are familiar.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  •  Do you think Benedict Arnold deserves his bad reputation? Why or why not?
  • What is the most interesting or unusual thing you learned about Benedict Arnold?
  • Has this book changed your definition of “hero” or “traitor”? How would you have acted differently in Arnold’s place?

Reason for reading: I read another of Sheinkin’s award-winning non fiction titles, Bomb, for a teen materials class I took earlier in my MLIS program, and I thought it was wonderful. I was intrigued by the idea of a biography of Benedict Arnold, because, like many Americans, I’ve grown up knowing his name and that he betrayed the Patriots during the Revolutionary War, but I could not have told you a single other fact about his life. For those reasons, this book has been on my reading list for awhile now and I’m glad this class gave me the excuse to pick it up.

Additional relevant information: At the end of the book, Sheinkin discusses Arnold’s legacy and says there is perhaps no more fitting example of his convoluted legacy than the Boot Monument at Saratoga. This statue commemorates Arnold’s bravery in battle, his exemplary leadership, and his physical sacrifice in the name of the Patriot’s cause, but it is only a statue of his injured leg rather than his entire self, and the plaque never names him, serving as a damnatio memoriae.

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