I know one of my readers is eagerly awaiting this review! Choose Your Own Adventure author Jay Leibold, already famous for his historical CYOA adventures, takes us back to the American Revolution in this generally engaging adventure. It’s not perfect by any means, but spy adventures this far in the past are pretty rare, so it’s good to explore a fairly unusual premise that’s handled competently and with respect for historical accuracy.
Spy For George Washington by Jay Leibold (illustrated by Don Hedin)
Published: September 1985
Number in the CYOA Series: 48
I generally had high hopes for this book. As you can see from the header image, my (used) copy of this book is pretty well-worn–it was not part of my original 1980s collection, so I got it used at a bookstore, and you can tell that some kid really loved this book. I’m a historian of early America and have myself written fiction set in that period (and involving George Washington), so I was looking forward to seeing how Jay Leibold pulled it off. While the book was a bit slow to engage me at first, on the whole my expectations were fulfilled. Spy For George Washington is a well-written, fast-paced adventure that delivers on most of its implicit promise.
The title explains the scenario. “You” live in New York City in 1777, and as your sympathies lie with the revolutionaries, it is somewhat unfortunate that your home city is being occupied by British troops. You meet an American agent at a tavern and he dispatches you to bring a letter to George Washington, encamped at Haverstraw on the Hudson River, which contains British plans for the invasion of Philadelphia. You have to get the letter to him at all costs. You manage to find a way out of town, but it’s late at night and the British are patrolling the harbor. Your first choice is whether to leave now or in the morning; both choices have risks and potential rewards.
Lord William Howe, victor of the Battle of Bunker Hill, makes a cameo appearance in the book Spy For George Washington.
This is a pretty decent opening. I like CYOA books that thrust you into the middle of the action without delay, and where you understand the stakes clearly and immediately. Plot-wise, this is almost a rewrite of Mr. Leibold’s previous World War II spy adventure, Sabotage, except set in the American Revolution. I’m not complaining. The obstacles you face are what you’d expect: finding reliable transportation, avoiding British patrols, what do you do if you get captured, should you risk giving yourself away, etc. At first the plot seemed somewhat predictable, but after my third pathway through the story it started to grow on me. I couldn’t articulate to myself what I was expecting that I wasn’t getting, so ultimately I let the story work for me on its own terms.
There are some very interesting set-pieces here, both historically and in terms of story structure. In one plot, you join a daring whaling crew that winds up in the middle of a full-on naval battle with a British frigate. Don Hedin’s illustration of the battle (p. 70-71) is magnificent, one of his best illustrations and must have been fun to draw. There’s a whimsical plot to assassinate Washington by a group of Loyalists posing as French nobility, and an amusing episode with an unusually colorful character, Hubert Hogglebottom, who may or may not be an American spy. You also rub shoulders with an escaped slave and Mohawk Indians, reminding us that there were many more stakeholders in the outcome of the Revolution than just patriots and Tories. A real-life, historically accurate British general, William Howe, makes a cameo appearance, and it’s good to see something like this done with care and tact. These episodes come and go very frequently and without a lot of rhyme or reason, but at least they’re interesting.
Don Hedin’s depiction of a Revolutionary naval engagement appears to be based on this famous 1780 painting by Thomas Mitchell, depicting the (US) Bonhomme Richard battling HMS Serapis in 1779.
This book does have one of the characteristics I like about the better CYOA adventures: a clear, well-defined objective that drives your actions over various permutations of the story. Here, you are resolutely focused on getting that letter to George Washington. Although you do get a bit sidetracked now and again, that’s only to be expected, and sidetracking occurs far less in this book than in some others that are supposed to have a clear objective (the classic Abominable Snowman, for instance). Leibold is very good as a plotter as well as a writer, and what results is a pretty tightly-knit story that is easy to follow and understand.
My only nitpick is that it’s almost too easy to reach a successful conclusion. The vast majority of endings in Spy For George Washington are “win” endings, where you complete your objective or at least come close. The British execute you a few times and there are some other misfortunes, but on the whole you’re far more likely to get away with it. It seems like beating the British should be a bit harder. (After all, neither Napoleon nor Hitler could bring it off!) Still, as criticisms go, that one is pretty minor.
Overall, Spy For George Washington is a very solid, well-written adventure book. It’s a must for any CYOA collector. I can definitely see why whatever kid owned this before me nearly wore it out.
Grade: A minus
Next up: Louise Munro Foley puts is in Danger at Anchor Mine.