by Veronica Rossi
368 pp., New York: Delacorte Press, 2020
Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Espionage touched almost every element of American society during the Revolutionary War. All sorts of men and women were involved; officers and enlisted men; politicians and merchants; craftsmen and intellectuals–even street toughs–bought, sold, traded, and stole information. Native Americans worked as scouts, and listened in on diplomatic discussions, and carried secrets across military lines. African Americans–free and enslaved—risked their lives to gather intelligence. And, even now, the true identities of almost all these informers remain unknown.
One of the most intriguing Revolutionary War spies was known as “355”, corresponding to “Lady” in the American cipher book, but no one has ever uncovered who she really was. Somehow, she was tied to the famous Culper spy ring that George Washington operated to get insider information from British-occupied New York City. Her work and fate remain vague, but author Veronica Rossi draws upon the intriguing mystery of “Lady 355” to weave the romantic and adventurous story of Rebel Spy.
Francisca, or Frannie Tasker, is, in 1776, a sixteen-year-old orphan, who is barely squeezing out a living on a Caribbean island as a “wrecker”–diving for salvage on shipwrecks. During a hurricane, she seizes an opportunity to escape from her cruelly abusive stepfather by taking on the identity of another young woman who has lost her life in the storm. In her new role, as a wealthy young heiress, Emmeline Coates, she embarks upon a vastly different kind of life—and arrives in New York just before the British occupation.
Miss Coates lives a pampered existence of dances and dinners among the city’s loyalist aristocracy, but during her ocean journey to North America, she encounters–and falls in love with–an impassioned young patriot named Asa Latimer who is brutally forced aboard a British warship. This, and the other cruelties she witnesses being inflicted on American prisoners in New York, leads her to a political awakening in sympathy with the patriot cause. Surrounded as she is by loyalists and British officers, however, Emmeline Coates must keep her true feelings secret even as she hides her identity.
By the summer of 1779, Emmeline has settled into her new life, learning how to behave and converse like the privileged young woman she pretends to be. Consorting with British officers on a regular basis, including dashing young Captain John André, it is only a matter of time before she becomes attached to one of them–in this case, André’s aide, the handsome Lieutenant James Duncan. At the same time, a chance encounter leads Emmeline into secret contact with bookseller Robert Townsend, also a key figure in the Culper spy ring. Still a devoted if hidden patriot, Emmeline determines to work with Townsend to spy on her British and loyalist friends and associates, including Duncan. Above all else, she seeks to uncover the identity of a man known only as “Monk,” who is working to betray Washington and the American cause.
Emmeline’s work as a spy quickly leads her into danger; the reappearance of figures from her past threatens to expose her identity. Meanwhile, her growing love for Lieutenant Duncan is challenged by the mysterious return of Asa Latimer, now apparently a loyalist merchant. As she navigates these growing threats to her safety, and to her heart; and as the Revolutionary War builds to a crescendo, she must look deep inside herself to find courage and reclaim her identity as Frannie Tasker.
Rebel Spy is a fine historical novel. The imaginative story is woven elegantly into an evocative and realistic history. Rossi has done her research well, placing Francisa/Emmeline’s adventures in the context of mostly accurate and believable historical figures and events. Although the patriots are the heroes, loyalist and British characters elicit sympathy as well, even if some are clichéd. The book’s only weaknesses are not so much in the history as in the story. The narrative is enjoyable and fast-paced, but it is filled with just too many fantastic coincidences–particularly in the climax–to be plausible. Rossi also seems to draw some of her romantic situations straight out of Jane Austen–if Jane Austen wrote spy novels. Still, Rebel Spy stands out as one of the best new releases in historical fiction for young adults.
Edward G. Lengel is Senior Director of Programs for the National World War II Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy in New Orleans, Louisiana.