July 2, 2010


by James Fenimore Cooper
448 pages, Nonsuch

Review by Kate Kasserman

The Spy is not Cooper’s first novel, but it was his first big success. While it isn’t nearly as famous as his later books (to wit, it is pretty much totally ignored in their shadow – but at least it is readily available, unlike that first book of his, heh), and justly so, it is engaging and fun right up until the third act, when things abruptly get a little silly. But that point I just wanted to see what happened to all the characters, so I sighed and got on with it.

The story is set in New York in the waning days of the American Revolution, where a prosperous upper-middle-class sort of family is living anxiously in the no-man’s land outside NYC. The family’s loyalties are divided, but nobody takes it very seriously (within the family, at least) because two of the only people who actually pick a side are unmarried daughters, and who cares about their political opinions? The girls don’t even take their distinction to heart; the younger, Frances is a Patriot in love with a rebel officer, and Sarah is a Loyalist in love with an English officer, and they figure that their political views are simply a reflection of their romantic prospects. Mr. Wharton, the father, really cares only that he isn’t going to be ruined by the war (a constant and very real possibility) by getting in dutch with one side or the other.

Anyway, things get messy when the son comes home for a visit. He hasn’t seen his family in a year and a half, because he’s a captain in His Majesty’s service and has been rather busy. But he gets leave at last, and everything seems fine, except, yoicks! The lines shift (they did this a lot in New York all throughout the war) and what should have been a pleasant stroll turns into having to cross the Continental (Patriot) pickets. So Captain Wharton decides, oh what the hell, he’ll put on a disguise and get a pass from a notorious Tory spy, Harvey Birch, who always seems to be able to get his hands on anything. Yes, even a pass to cross the Continental lines. Birch comes through, the disguised Captain Wharton whistles his way through the lines, and he’s home for a visit, yay! But – not yay, because the Continentals are searching houses (looking for Birch, actually, who has escaped from them before and really, really frosts them) and come across Captain Wharton in his dopey-looking civilian clothes and trashy wig (and an eye-patch yet – the dude does not do “subtle,” evidently). If an enemy soldier gets caught in battle or in uniform, it’s kind of a meh. His name will go on a list, and he’ll be paroled or traded or whatever, and nobody loses much sleep over it.

But if he is caught in disguise, he is automatically slotted as a spy, and can (and very likely will) be hanged after the most summary of trials. So this is what Captain Wharton is looking at, which very much sucks.

We follow the Whartons and their tribulations and the vicissitudes of the girls’ love lives (well, whodathunkit, “spoiler” here: Frances’s Patriot beau is a good guy, and Sarah’s Englishman is a scurvy twerp), and Frances’s romance and Captain Wharton’s ultimate fate drive the engine of the plot. However – neither of them is the real protagonist of the piece. That is Harvey Birch, the aforementioned Tory spy.

The whole book, really, is wrestling with the issue of spying. Right, the title. So, here comes another spoiler, which is in fact no sort of spoiler whatsoever if you read Cooper’s introduction: Birch is working for Washington. He is not exactly a double-agent, because his loyalty is very clearly with the American side, but he is on the British payroll and does pass minor secrets to them in order to keep his bona fides (and consequently access) solid.

There are a lot of things we would have been screwed without during that war, and a vast network of spies is one of them. It was tricky stuff, because the “just hang him, he is a sneak and a liar and therefore dishonorable” attitude was a bit on the inflexible-ish side back then (as well as in Cooper’s day in the early 19th century). To take on the role of a spy was to throw away your honor and good name. That is a sacrifice far greater than one’s life, and Cooper set out to redeem this despised class.

He is pretty melodramatic about it. Birch suffers some viciously cruel tortures (with their concomitant rhetorical moral purifying effect), such as being attacked and robbed by a band of so-called Patriot thugs in his own home while his father – Birch’s one personal attachment – lies dying in the next room. And Birch becomes positively saintly and nearly omnipotent when coming to the defense of our Unambiguously Virtuous characters (moral purification through association).

While Birch remains a cipher in the minds of the characters we follow (we never, ever get inside Birch’s head, a clever and effective choice) and the plot is brewing rather than resolving, the book is pretty strong. Cooper is quite good at vivid secondary characters, and really comes into his own when describing people who are a bit good and a bit bad, while his All-Goods can get a bit tiresome. However, do be prepared that an early 19th-century aesthetic can be rather…rough. His mockery of the uneducated can come across as fairly strong stuff to a modern eye, and we have jokes like…well, let’s just say that the punchline of one involves a child dying of tetanus.

But once our main characters know for sure that Birch is on the side of the angels (the angels, I say!), things start to go flat. There are some charming moments, like Birch’s impersonation of a late 18th-century Holy Roller – I am sorry, there is no way to have THAT much Hellfire and “you are damned” without its being funny. However, once Birch’s ultimate purity becomes manifest, the high-minded monologues and pose-striking can get somewhat wearing. I will admit, though, that one of Birch’s didactic moments got to me, almost enough to redeem the rest of ’em. It is very near the end of the book (the actual end is a coda where Birch gets the reward of a clean death in battle as a yes, yes, we see symbolic representation of his honor – even if it is the War of 1812), where Birch is confabbing with General Washington. The war is over, but whatever Birch has done in the course of his spying must evidently remain secret forever so that people are not compromised. Birch has lost everything (cf. previous robbery), and Washington tries to give him a fat bag of money to live on, but Birch refuses it. Washington then lectures him gently (a-gain) on how he has to keep shtum about the fact that he was working on the Patriot side.

“…I have told you that the characters of men who are much esteemed in life depend on your secrecy; what pledge can I give them of your fidelity?”

“Tell them,” said Birch, advancing and unconsciously resting one foot on the bag, “tell them that I would not take the gold!”

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