IN 2003, TRUE WEST MAGAZINE named Lucia St. Clair Robson the years Best Living Western Historical Novelist, combining a historian's knowledge of facts with a novelist's understanding of the human condition. As a result, the article continues, she's able to transport her readers to a world that is so real, they can smell the sweat."
This aptly sums up her latest effort, Shadow Patriots, where Robson has left the West behind to explore the terrain of colonial America during the Revolutionary War. The story revolves around one of George Washingtons key spy operations, called The Culper Ring, and the crucial participation of 355 (code word for lady), a female spy whose true identity has remained a mystery.
The Darby family lives in Philadelphia. They are Quakers, and as per the precepts of their religion, do not fight or take sides in armed conflicts. This is a period of tumult, however, in which one is branded either a patriot or a loyalist. Siblings Kate and Seth Darby, both young adults, realize they cant continue to stand at the sidelines. Seth slips away by night to go serve his fledgling country in the army. Kate, at seventeen, is more rational and pragmatic than her hotheaded younger brother. But soon circumstances force her to confront the temptations and intrigue lurking outside her door. In addition to the lure of the patriot cause, theres the winsome British Major, John André a hugely appealing character brought to vivid life by Robsons pen who is temporarily posted in her family home. And then theres the more mysterious but frustratingly shy Rob Townsend who catches her eye, and she his. Through Rob and her brother Seth, Kate grows more deeply involved in the countrys struggle for independence. Espionage, secret codes and invisible ink messages lead to ever greater danger and drama during this decisive period in American history.
Robson, whose work includes the 1982 bestseller Ride the Wind, now in its 17th printing, has made a name for herself in writing authentic historical fiction. Her background a Masters degree in Library Science supports her extensive research efforts (up to 300 sources per project). While only a quarter of that research may show up on the finalized page, the other three-quarters lends authority to the authors voice. Occasionally a gesture or statement would cause me to wonder, would that really happen then? Did Quakers treat their black servants with such warm familiarity and affection? Were the women of that era really so bawdy and earthy, often wearing nothing at all beneath their hoop skirts? Did mice truly find a home in some of the powdered wigs? Robsons clear command of her subject tells me, yes, these are all accurate, and she put them in precisely because they were quirky, true and noteworthy.
Reading Shadow Patriots is like paging through a fascinating history book, with characters such as George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Alexander Hamilton springing to life in a visceral fashion unparalleled by any nonfiction on the same subject. The reader learns how people dressed, spoke, and what colonial Philadelphia and New York looked and smelled like (the answer: dirty and stinky). Each description both moves the story forward and offers us a whimsical history lesson. The American encampment at Valley Forge, for example, is brilliantly depicted.
The engineers had marked out the arrangement of huts by companies, battalions, and brigades, but their efforts looked more like wreckage than construction. The temporary quarters of dugouts, lean-tos, and tents were hard to distinguish from the heaps of rubbish. No one had completed the first log hut, and the soldiers dragged the timbers across the survey lines, churning the ground into icy mud.
Robson shines particularly in her descriptions of people, be it the maccaronis trendy men with foot-high wigs, lace and face powder, or the general population with their dirty homespun smocks, manure-caked boots and missing teeth.
Mary Ludwig Hayes looked as if someone had thrown her clothes on with a pitchfork. Her pinned-up skirt revealed a mans boots and stout ankles in wool stockings that she described as more holey than righteous. Her hair rioted around the ruffled bottom of the dirty linen mob cap. In Marys case, mob was an apt name for it.
Few words are wasted in this novel its a veritable treasure trove of interesting, pertinent history. This, however, leads to my one complaint. So much information in a short space proved overwhelming. In the first thirty-six pages, characters from history are fired at the reader like cannonballs: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Rob Townsend, New York mayor David Matthews, Hercules Mulligan, William Cunningham, Benjamin Tallmadge, Nathan Hale, General William Howe, Elizabeth Loring. They were all well-drawn, but I felt myself flailing, unsure of who was to become a key character. By chapter four, when the reader meets Kate and Seth Darby, the story begins to settle into place. Had I known my Revolutionary War history, I might have better appreciated the historical characters presence in the story.
The books flaws, however, are minor compared to its virtues. As accurate, lively, historical fiction, this book succeeds wildly, and as such, I would highly recommend it to fans of that genre. To others, Id still recommend it. But you might want to dust off your history book first.
Terez Roses work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Midwest Book Review, the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Peace Corps Online. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003), A Womans Europe (Travelers Tales, June 2004) and Italy, a Love Story: Women Write about the Italian Experience (Seal Press, June 2005). She is currently at work on her second novel.