If you have never read one of Avi's books, you really need to. He writes intelligent historical fiction for young people. He never dumbs down his books, and obviously works hard to be historically accurate.
In this complex, smart story Avi again tackles an aspect of the American Revolution. (He did it once before in The Fighting Ground, where the reader is swept along in thirteen-year-old Jonathon's passion to be part of the fighting, and then his rude awakening to the realities of being a soldier.) But this story isn't just a feminine version of The Fighting Ground. It's a completely different aspect of the war, written in a different kind of narrative.
The story is broken up into two different time frames. Roughly the first half takes place in 1776 when Sophia Calderwood is twelve years old. Sophia and her parents fled their home in New York City when the British invaded. Sophia's adored older brother William joined the American troops fighting to keep the British out of the city. As the book opens in September of 1776, Sophia and her mother are returning on foot to New York to try to reclaim what they can of their lives. (For safety, Mr. Calderwood must return in secret later.) In an apple orchard on the outskirts of New York, they witness a young man of "dignified bearing" being led by British soldiers to a rope hanging from an apple tree, and Sophia watches in horror as the ladder is kicked away and the young man (who she later learns was Nathan Hale) is hanged.
Still reeling from that shock, they return to their home to find it looted of all their most costly possessions. As they begin the clean-up process, a small troop of British soldiers appears on their doorstep, looking for Mr. Calderwood and informing them they will be required to billet a British Officer. What follows is a tense time of eking out a living while boarding a British officer and pretending to be Loyalists. Sophia develops a reluctant crush on John Andre (oh curse Blogger's lack of language accents!) the British officer boarding in their home, even as she firmly believes in the American cause. When she learns that her brother is a prisoner of the British and housed under appalling conditions, she pleads with Andre to help. What happens next firmly sets her on the course for later events.
The second half of the book takes place three years later, in 1780, when Sophia is fifteen years old. Through her work with her father's publisher friend, she meets a man who recruits her as a spy in the household of General Sir Henry Clinton. As a housemaid, she would have access to information vital to the war effort. She stumbles on to what appears to be a clandestine operation possibly involving the collaboration of the British and an American of high military rank, a man Sophia and other Americans idolized, a man who played a huge part in early American victories against the British. The implications are so shocking and suddenly Sophia is alone in her quest to bring this information to light.
In the author's note at the end of the book, Avi writes that the two story threads based on historical facts "are as historically accurate as I could write them." He goes on to say that "Sophia is as true an individual as I could hope to create, and her actions provide an explanation as to what really happened in 1780."
And can I tell you how much I appreciated his striving for historical accuracy, even down to the language used. So often you read historical fiction, and get jerked out of the story by an author's use of modern words and terminology. In fact, there is a very helpful glossary in the back of the book to look up those unfamiliar words you come across. (A couple of years ago I read a Middle Grade novel by an author who shall remain nameless, about the Civil War era and the main character talks about being "gaga" for a certain boy! Yes, that word was actually used. Having already overlooked other words that were very obviously not historically accurate, I threw the book down in disgust and never went back to it. So I really appreciated Avi's obviously meticulous research on this book.)
Sophia provides the modern reader with an emotional barometer of the life of an average citizen during that time of conflict in American history. Avi shows Sophia's -I think natural- human conflictions that come with living in a war-torn country: how morals and actions change or become ambiguous based on circumstances.
Sophia, as a narrator, is very Self conscious: she narrates her story as someone aware of her audience and how they may be judging her. Her narrative never loses that awareness. There is a "buttoned up" quality to it: like she is recalling this period of time and reacting almost unwillingly to remembered emotions, and doesn't want to come across as too emotional. She tries her best to be fair and balanced in her narrative, not defending her actions and emotions so much as explaining them. And yet, despite the distancing approach to the narrative, the reader is quickly caught up in her experiences.
Book published in September 2012 by Beach Lane Books.
I nominated this book for the CYBILS 2012 in the Middle Grade Fiction category.
Also linking up with Armchair CYBILS and The Children's Bookshelf.