I love historical fiction. I especially love historical fiction when told from the perspective of a woman. As I browsed the Barnes & Noble website looking for a particular book I couldn’t find in stores I veered off and came across “The Traitor’s Wife” by Allison Pataki. I never judge a book by its cover but…I judge a book by its cover. It looked like my kind of read (colonial flag! corset! bustle!). Growing up in New York, working in politics, and spending my spare time in the Hudson Valley, I was very familiar with the Pataki name. Yet, I was unfamiliar with the story itself. Sold.
I eagerly dove in and fell deeply into the tantalizing web of deceit and seductive manipulation that sets the tone for “The Traitor’s Wife,” the first novel by Allison Pataki.
Told from the perspective of the demure lady’s maid Clara Bell, “The Traitor’s Wife” delicately unfurls the nefariously crafty scheme of Peggy Shippen Arnold, wife to General Benedict Arnold, to hand over West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War. Benedict Arnold, the decorated war hero and confidante of General George Washington, is an underdeveloped historical figure in history lesson books, books that begin and promptly end when Arnold places his stamp on American history as a traitor to the colonial cause. However, the story is much more captivating, salacious, and intricate than that. Set in the backdrop of the Hudson Valley at the height of the Revolutionary War, “The Traitor’s Wife” tells a story more or less untold – that of Peggy Shippen Arnold and her plan to betray America.
Peggy Shippen was the apple of every Philadelphian gentleman’s eye. Beautiful, intelligent, and coquettish, Shippen gained the reputation of being society’s darling, turning the heads of military men at every corner. Her early romance with Major John André, the notorious British spy, leaves her with a longlasting taste for heated romance and politics that winds up taking a sinister turn. In fact, Peggy Shippen singlehandedly nearly caused the downfall of colonial America. Allison Pataki deeply explores this storyline and gives a detailed account of Peggy’s motivations.
Told from the perspective of Clara Bell, Peggy’s maid, Clara joins the Shippen household after her grandmother dies. She is excited and eager for her new position and new lease on life. However, as time passes, Clara becomes witness to Peggy’s manipulative side, as Peggy hesitatingly takes Benedict Arnold’s hand in marriage after he is befallen by her beauty. Benedict Arnold is a empathetic figure and you cannot help but feel for him as he is dealt the carefully crafted hand that seals his fate as a traitor. As Pataki develops Clara’s character over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Clara is hopeful and supportive of the colonial cause whereas Peggy is a fierce Loyalist to British sentiment, unbeknownst to Arnold.
Peggy’s motivations lead her back into the arms of former lover John André to carefully concoct a scheme with a hesitant but ultimately willing Benedict Arnold. The scheme? To sell colonial secrets to the British Navy in order to capture West Point, a strategic colonial stronghold during the Revolutionary War. Surrendering control of West Point held repercussions for trade and the rights to the Hudson River to New York City. As the story unfolds, the reader is taken down the rabbit hole of personal, emotional and political destruction.
In several sections throughout the book the reader glimpses into Clara’s personal “journal,” a more intimate perspective about her feelings towards Peggy and the situation at hand. This was an effective way for Pataki to set the stage for events that were about to unfold, and for the reader to get to know Clara through a different lens. I would have liked to see a little more character development with Clara, particularly her relationship with the Shippen’s stable hand Caleb Little, as she is such a likable figure who made a stunning metamorphosis from meek lady’s maid to courageously outspoken young woman.
The overall writing was captivating and alluring, nary a dull moment throughout. It is evident that Allison Pataki spent countless hours researching and crafting this edge of your seat story without losing sight of the most important historical details. I found it to be an easy read and if you aren’t typically a historical fiction reader but want to dip your toes into the genre, this would be a great first read for you. Allison Pataki has done an excellent job of bringing you back to the late 1700s.
What I find fascinating about historical fiction is the fictional part of it. Yes, “The Traitor’s Wife” contains an element of this and it’s meant to take certain liberties and use the author’s creative license. For me, it is fun discerning fact from fiction. This is how you learn and what has brought me time and again to delve deeper into the history behind each novel.
On a scale of 1-10 corsets, I give “The Traitor’s Wife” a 9.
Psst! I’ll have a Q&A with author Allison Pataki tomorrow where she’ll talk about The Traitor’s Wife, historical fiction, and writing in general. Oh, and a new release set to hit bookshelves on February 17, 2015. Stay tuned!