THE SPY appeared in December of 1821, 189 years ago as I write this. Why in the world would anyone want to read a novel written nearly two centuries ago? First of all, I submit that the age of a book is pretty much immaterial. Until one has read it, a book is always new to each of its readers. Secondly, THE SPY is very simply an intriguing story, which brings us to one of the two reasons that I thoroughly enjoy it:
The story line of the book is as interesting as that of any modern spy novel, probably better in fact. Take this mysterious peddler, Harvey Birch. He is widely believed to be a spy for the British, but where do his loyalties truly lie? What real identity underlies Harper, the stranger driven to the Whartons' home by the storm? Beyond the mysteries lie other fascinating plot threads, for even in the midst of war love exists, both true as in the case of Major Dunwoodie and false as in the person of the British Colonel Wellmere.
Beyond its gripping story line, I also found THE SPY most enjoyable reading for what I'll call its educational aspects. Although it is a novel and therefore fictional, I believe it does rather accurately bring out aspects of the American Revolution that are often ignored in American history classes. As happened again eighty-four years later in the War Between the States, the Revolution saw many families whose members were divided in their loyalties. Not all of the colonists were in favor of American independence by any means. Many remained loyal to King George, while many others strove to maintain neutrality in the hope of preserving their property from confiscation or destruction by either side. All of these sundry positions find expression through various characters in THE SPY.
Another aspect of the Revolution of which I was hitherto unaware was the existence of irregular armed groups that roamed the countryside amidst the lawlessness of war, ostensibly supporting one side or the other but often more self-serving than anything else. Neither the Skinners (supposedly supporters of the revolutionaries) nor the Cowboys and Refugees (supporters of British loyalists) were particularly trustworthy or observant of any "rules of war," pillaging and burning at their own whims. As with probably any war, things were not quite as neat and orderly as history textbooks make them appear. Bits of historical reality such as this leave the reader not only entertained but also a little bit wiser of our nation's beginnings.
To balance the review, I must add a couple of characteristics of Cooper's writing that were a bit distracting, although neither can be called a weakness given the stylistic and social conventions of the time. Early 19th Century writers were not as direct and concise as are modern authors, and the use of rather stilted phrases in lieu of precise nouns was an expected norm. Hence, instead of the single word "doctor," we find "disciple of Aesculapius" and such like. More distracting, though quite explicable in light of evolving social norms, are the descriptions and actions of the female characters, who exemplify the now-outmoded traits of the "weakness of their sex" and are controlled by conventions of "propriety" that the contemporary reader now finds ludicrous. I mention these not to dissuade anyone from reading THE SPY but merely to prepare one to encounter them.
All in all, the novel remains as intriguing and captivating as at any time in its 189 year existence, and I heartily recommend it to any reader interested in a fresh, and probably very realistic, view of the American Revolution as well as anyone who just enjoys a good, adventurous mystery story.