355: A Novel Book Review
In the middle of the American War for Independence, three women put their lives and those of their families in danger by passing information on the British to General George Washington.
Meg Moncrieffe is the daughter of a British officer but becomes embroiled in espionage when she loses the love of her life. Elizabeth Burgin, a strong supporter of independence, follows in her husband’s footsteps after he is captured and imprisoned. Sally Townsend, daughter of a prominent Quaker family, must choose to follow her religious beliefs and remain neutral or to follow her ideals and work for independence.
The novel follows the lives of these three women, one of whom may have been the mysterious agent 355 from the disasters of the New York campaign to the end of the war.
Theme of the Book
355 is a historical novel but it is far from the dry dates and facts many people think of as history. Instead, it is a story of intrigue, of dedication to a cause, and of self-sacrifice.
What I Liked About the Story
Most American readers will be familiar with the stories of Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold but few will know about the role women played in gathering intelligence for the Continental Army.
355 is a meticulously researched novel where women play the leading roles. Constrained by the social conventions of the time, each woman uses her “subordinate” position to hide the extremely dangerous work she is doing. This is not high-tech espionage but espionage based on flirtation and on the accepted woman’s role of protector and nurturer.
Meg collects intelligence not because she is enamored of the goal of American independence; in fact, her motivations are almost entirely personal. Having been rejected by the one man she loves, rebel Aaron Burr, Meg begins by passing information she’s learned to the British. Forced to marry a man she detests, it is her hatred for her husband and her resentment toward her father that lead her to support the Americans’ cause. In the end, it is the lack of personal love that motivates Meg.
Elizabeth and Sally are more purely idealistic in their motives. Elizabeth begins her real espionage activity only after learning of her husband’s capture. Sally, torn between Quaker beliefs and desire for both national and personal independence, follows her brother into spying but uses the attraction two British officers have for her as her means of gathering intelligence.
The author has brought the years of 1776 to 1789 to life. While there are no descriptions of battle or tactics, the reader will feel the effects of the war on those left at home. It is a time of contrasts: there are the devastations caused by an occupying army but there are also parties and balls; neighbors of different loyalties are still neighbors ready to help in times of emergency; British officials can be cruel, like the commandant of the prison ships, or gentlemen with a knowledge of music and poetry. Romance still flourishes, even between so-called enemies.
Ms. Sergeant has written a novel full, not of dry history, but of humanity, devotion to a cause, self-sacrifice, and love.
What I Didn’t Like About the Story
It is the romantic element that is the weak spot in the novel. The romantic relationships are important both for motivation and for moving the plot along, but at times romance seems to outweigh any other aspect of the women’s stories. A little more tension in certain parts (bringing supplies to the prison ships, travel between armies) and a little less romantic involvement would have made this a stronger book. At times the author didn’t seem sure of the type of book she was writing.
There were a number of typos and grammar mistakes that should have been caught by the proofreader. These, while not a strong distraction from the story, were disappointing.
I am always happy when I can be both educated and entertained by a book. 355 fits the bill. It is a fascinating story about a little-known topic that should keep readers turning pages.