Review — SPIES AND DESERTERS by Martin Ganzglass (Somalia)


Spies and Deserters: A Novel of American Revolution
by Martin R. Ganzglass (Somalia 1966-68)
Peace Corps Writers Books
April 2016
378 pages
$14.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by William Seraile (Ethiopia 1963–65)

MARTIN GANZGLASS, AN ACCOMPLISHED NOVELIST, has crafted a well-researched and easy-to-read novel about the American war for independence. Unlike the traditional story of freedom loving Americans chafing under the rule of the British crown, Ganzglass shows that the struggle for independence was a war of brutality, deprivation and hypocrisy.

The combatants were not all white: Five thousand freed and enslaved persons of color sided with the rebels. Another four thousand served in the navy and militias acting as spies, cooks and servants in aiding the American cause. Crispus Attucks, a man of color, died in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Both Peter Salem and Salem Poor were at the Battle of Bunker Hill with the latter responsible for the death of British Lt. Col. James Abercrombie.

Although a few were previously in the Continental Army, George Washington ended their recruitment fearing that arming slaves might lead to insurrections. Governor Lord Dunmore, the Crown’s representative in Virginia derailed Washington’s decision in 1775 when he promised freedom to indentured servants and enslaved Africans who would join the British in ending the rebellion. This decision led to scores of slaves deserting their owners including some from the plantations of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

I very much enjoyed reading this novel with its breezy writing coupling fiction with historical characters. Ganzglass writes with a fluidity of imagery that had me visualizing scenes in a Hollywood spectacular. In describing a victim of war, he wrote —

. . . the light from [a] lantern shone on a shrouded, bare-footed corpse, stiff and frozen.” [There was] evidence of a slashing wound on the side of the neck. The eye nearest the gash was closed as if the man knew it was fatal and had no need to see it. His other eye was open as was his mouth that formed a grimace, revealing several missing teeth.

The author used the telling of two romances to illustrate the difference between a free white officer and a free black man to highlight the difficulties facing a slave woman whose fate depended upon the whim of her owner.

  • Will Stoner, a white rebel officer, courted Elisabeth Van Hooten, a rebel spy. He only had to survive to take her hand in marriage.
  • Adam Cooper, a black man who was born free, had to purchase Sarah Penrose’s freedom before he could marry her. Sarah who was described as having skin the color of polished oak and green grey eyes was owned by the Rev. Penrose who lent her to George Washington to be his cook. She also cooked for Lafayette. These two non-voluntary employments made her extra valuable because she could also speak French, and desirous souls would want to have the general’s cook in their household. This bid well for Reverend Penrose, but not for Sarah or Adam because her price went from 53 pounds to 200.

An irate Adam deserted the rebel army and joined forces with Colonel Tye, a fugitive slave who organized a band to raid and kill those who supported the revolution. Both Adam and Tye (his character was based on a real person) understood the hypocrisy of Americans fighting for freedom from the crown while denying that same freedom to their human property.

Even Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams understood this truism. She informed her husband by letter in 1774 that “it always appeard a most inquitious Scheme to me — fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who a good a right to freedom as we have.” (Thankfully, Ganzglass used modern English in letters between his characters for there was no uniform rules of spelling nor grammar in the eighteenth century.)

The novel uses historical facts and individuals to tell the story of those involved in the war. Unusual for a novelist, Ganzglass provides end notes to flesh out both historical individuals and incidents as well as a bibliography. He writes about Benedict Arnold’s courtship of Peggy Shippen, but does not mention his betrayal of the American cause. George Washington is a minor figure in the plot. but he looms large in the novel’s ending which will leave you hanging.

Reviewer William Seraile has a doctorate in American history from the graduate center of the City University of New York and  taught African American history for thirty six years at Lehman College, City University of New York. He is the author of five books on African American history. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Mekelle, Ethiopia, he was  a secondary teacher of world geography and European history, 1963-65. William is retired.

Martin Ganzglass has publish three earlier novels in his series “A Novel of the American Revolution”:

Cannons for the Cause: A Novel of the American Revolution
Tories and Patriots
Blood Upon the Snow

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