America’s “first” spies seem to be all over the place these days. Spy thrillers in general are ever-popular — how many times have you read recently that The Americans is “the best show on television“? But I keep crossing paths with fresh storytelling around America’s much earlier spymasters and secret agents. Revolutionary War tales have always captivated me, and been a mainstay of my decades as a romance and historical fiction reader. Now there are swashbuckling RevWar tales coming to life on screens and in new genres and media, from television to graphic novels to interactive living history experiences.
I don’t know how to measure whether these productions represent a significant trend toward renewed mainstream interest in 18th century American history, or part of a larger trend towards historical drama (the TV series in particular) but I do know I am enjoying the chance to see heroes in tricornes and mobcaps match wits and swords with villains who don’t always reveal themselves merely in the color of their red coats. Here’s my list of new RevWar spy stories, probably incomplete (I’m pretty sure there must be RevWar fans who are gamers, hence games, but that’s foreign territory for me), with just a few brief impressions.
AMC’s Turn This high profile series from AMC follows in the footsteps of HBO’s John Adams, but takes real history in a more traditional direction for television — towards twisty plotlines, sexy intrigue, constant threats of danger, and violence. It’s coming back for Season 2 in about a month (April 2015). I admit I probably had overly high expectations for this show, given the sheer numbers of romantic and heroic novels set in this period that I’ve read. I’m a fan, but largely because of the setting, the attention to details of social history and everyday life in British-occupied North America, and quality of the production, rather than any sense of emotional connection to the characters. My connection to the story feels as if it’s happening via the evocation of history I already know and care about, rather than happening through my experience of these individuals and their particular stories.
It’s an ensemble cast, and I have some favorites – dueling spymasters Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and John Andre (JJ Felid) are a delicious contrast – but the two principal leads, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind) just don’t make a strong enough impression, and as they occupy the center of the plot, it all somehow just feels too flat. I keep wanting to like Abe more, or care more about him as an unsual/unlikely Everyman kind of conflicted hero, but … it’s not happening. Anna is the more ballsy hero here, with nothing left to lose, but again, it’s not powerful enough. The center doesn’t hold. Fortunately, there are enough charismatic secondary characters, especially those fighting for the “wrong” side (not in the pic, but well worth mentioning is Angus MacFadyen’s Robert Rogers), and connections to historic events and places that I find compelling, for me to keep watching.
Sleepy Hollow OK, this show with its OTT apocalyptic horror elements is not a true spy drama, but it’s supernatural time travel mystery is embedded in RevWar history and myth, and spins a hilariously fun yarn that links Washington’s inner circle of strategists and spies to saving mankind from satanic forces of evil and the Four Horsemen. It’s the opposite of Turn in that it’s got a charismatic relationship at its center that kept me watching even after I tired of the surrounding elements, which in this case involve a lot of crazy antics with zombies, witches, sin-eaters, and curses.
More of a badass than he appears on the surface, Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane is the embodiment of an 18th century scholar soldier, an eminently watchable hero in the Dunnett mold (though I suppose I am stopping short of a full-blown Lymond comparison here, because the supernatural elements of this show are too silly for me). As brass tacks foil for Crane’s hilarious encounters with 21st century customs and technology, Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills strikes just the right balance between eye rolling and empathy. Cryptography and code breaking are important tools for driving the storyline, so I’m counting Sleepy Hollow in my collection of RevWar spy storytelling. While we’re talking about television, I haven’t yet seen History Channel’s Sons of Liberty, but it may end up here on the list too, if there’s enough spying going on.
RevQuest @ Colonial Williamsburg I’m the kind of parent whose children are likely to complain that every family vacation was interrupted by detours and pit stops at every national historic site or house museum that could be crammed in to the itinerary. So we’ve been to a LOT of these places, including the biggest and most well regarded of the big living history attractions (for those interested in early American history) like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village. And I’ve probably adopted the Massachusetts habit of dissing places like “Tory” Virginia when it comes to comparing bragging rights about Revolutionary sites and significance. So I wasn’t expecting to be as wowed by Colonial Williamsburg as I was when I took the tweens there last April. A huge element of the wow factor was their tremendously fun and elaborate interactive real-time spy game — RevQuest.
Scavenger hunts for kids are ubiquitous at educational and historic museums these days, but RevQuest takes that kind of experience to a whole new level. You get props, you must pick up and decode secret messages, you have to notice and approach other members of the “resistance,” and you send messages to your handler via secret system (there are segments of the quest that test your codebreaking skill via text messaging). It’s challenging and fun enough for older kids — we saw lots of teens and young adults on the sprawling quest that takes the better part of a day to complete (participants wear a bright scarf you’re issued when you sign up) — and families can play along together (there’s also a more traditional scavenger hunt map for younger kids). It’s a fantastic lens through which to experience a day in the revolutionary city, and each year the quest is re-framed with a new storyline and set of clues. Last year’s “The Old Enemy” placed participants in the role of senior agent responsible for brokering the alliance with France, to obtain much-needed stores of gunpowder. My daughters were captivated by the experience, and the piece that really made it work was learning some spycraft along with real history about the American situation and strategy during the early days of the war against Britain. I can’t tell you how great it was to see my reserved, somewhat shy daughters, emboldened to approach and interact with the interpreters playing the roles of fellow secret patriots.
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales Another YA-related phenomenon, this series of graphic novels was launched in 2012 with the story of American hero spy, Nathan Hale. In truth, only the first book, One Dead Spy, and the cleverly arch conceit that frames the series, has anything to do with RevWar spies, but we think these books are so much fun, I had to include them. And get this, the extremely gifted author/illustrator is actually named NATHAN HALE. For reals!
Donner Dinner Party and Big Bad Ironclad are also, rather unbelievably given the subject matter, very witty. Each tale is a meticulously researched and illustrated volume that delivers an unusual blend of black humor, middle school age-appropriate gross-out japery, and serious historical storytelling that explores and explicates the how and why of some very hazardous (and dark) episodes in US history. The girls and I are eagerly anticipating Hale’s newest tale – forthcoming in April – The Underground Abductor — a tale about Harriet Tubman and her perilous journeys on the Underground Railroad.
Renegades of the Revolution I’m going to wrap this post up with a teaser — I have recently finished reading Donna Thorland’s Mistress Firebrand, the third volume in the Renegades series of swashbuckling romances grounded in authentically tumultuous Revolutionary America. Thorland’s dark and dangerous spy romances (The Turncoat, and The Rebel Pirate) weave a complex and glittering web of honor, deceit, loyalty, treachery, violence and courage around her beautifully imagined characters. For me, Joanna Bourne sets the bar pretty high when it comes to historical spy romance, but Thorland delivers, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my response to the seemingly impossible romance between reckless rebel playwright Jennifer Leighton and ruthless Crown agent Severin Devere in a forthcoming post.
(Full disclosure: Donna is a twitter acquaintance, and was kind enough to send me an ARC of Mistress Firebrand. In accordance with my policy, I’m not under obligation to review, and if I do write about the book, it will be my honest opinion.)
So what do you think? If you’re a reader of American history and historical fiction, do you notice a resurgence of multi-media re-tellings of our Revolutionary history, with an emphasis on the clandestine goings on? Are there aspects of the collective past that are being reframed and/or repackaged, and to what end(s)?