Niles-Maine District Library

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery

by Steve Sheinkin
Benedict Arnold is the most famous traitor in American history, but once he was one of Washington’s most trusted generals. This fascinating book details his rise and fall, including the political slights and money woes that may have motivated him.

This well-researched, well-written account of Benedict Arnold’s life reads like an adventure novel. A flash-forward at the very beginning vividly describes an execution, but whose execution is it? This trickery adds a wonderful element of suspense to the narrative. Sheinkin then turns back to Arnold’s birth and lets the story flow chronologically through his life. It seemed inconceivable at first that the dedicated (albeit hotheaded) patriot who led assaults on Fort Ticonderoga and Montreal would ever turn on his country, but as slights and debts piled up I began to see how a generous offer from the British might sway him.

The cover design makes it look like a novel, which helps it stand out from the majority of YA nonfiction. Other than one portrait of Arnold at the end, the only illustrations are maps by Lazslo Kubinyi.  These are very well done, and I referred to them often as I read. The short chapters include date ranges along with the titles, making it easy to place all the events in Arnold’s life chronologically.

Sheinkin admits to an Arnold obsession, and his passion shows not just in the writing, but in the extensive source notes and quote notes that are appended. I might have a hard time swallowing the quotes that Sheinkin attributes to the players in Arnold’s drama, if he didn’t have these sources (including several firsthand accounts) to back him up. I appreciate that the sources are arranged by category and the quote notes by chapter. There’s also an index, which is handy for looking up specific people, places, battles and ships.

I knew very little about Benedict Arnold (other than he was a traitor) going into this book, and by the end Sheinkin had succeeded in making me interested in visiting the Revolutionary battlefields where he left his mark.

The Notorious Benedict Arnold received YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction on January 23, 2012. “In this illuminating biography, Sheinkin proves that spoilers don’t matter—it’s not whether or not Arnold betrayed his country, but why,” said YALSA Nonfiction Award Chair Jennifer Hubert. Although the YALSA award honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults, this is a book that adults can enjoy, as well.
Sheinkin was not able to attend the award ceremony in-person, but he supplied a heartfelt video message (now on youtube) in which he thanked YALSA for recognizing his “child.”  He described Arnold as America’s first action hero.  As a textbook writer, he had always been trying to insert Arnold into history books, and his editors had always insisted on deleting him.  “He makes people nervous,” Sheinkin said.  This book had its genesis as a work of fiction.  The longer he worked on it, the worse it got.  YA nonfiction saved him, because he was able to throw all of his “pretentious nonsense” out the window and stick to a straight-forward action story.  He hopes the book’s readers will learn a lot about U.S. history without even realizing it “until it’s too late.”

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