Loyalty is Chosen: Rebel Spy by Veronica Rossi

6.28.2020


Thank you to Delacorte Press for providing me with an advanced reader copy for review. Receiving this galley does not impact my opinion of the book.


"I sank into a deep curtsy. Then I rose, a lady."

The Culper Spy Ring was an American espionage network that conducted intelligence operations against the British in New York City during the Revolutionary War. Records hold the identities of a few members of this organization, including Hercules Mulligan, Robert Townsend, and Anna Strong. However, the identity of one female member, referred to only by the code name "Agent 355" or "Lady" remains unknown. In Rebel Spy, Agent 355 is Francisca "Frannie" Tasker, a young immigrant desiring to fulfill her deceased mother's dreams of a safer world. Frannie already leads a double life: to escape her abusive stepfather, she took on the identity of Emmeline Coates, a wealthy 19-year-old socialite who died in a shipwreck. For Frannie, spying for the Americans represents a way to use her newfound status and connections to serve a greater purpose. Veronica Rossi's exploration of Frannie's life highlights the role of women in the American Revolution and asserts that loyalty, whether to a country, ideal, or person, must be chosen to be true.

Throughout Rebel Spy, constant instances of men using their power to shame and silence Frannie serve as frustrating and effective reminders of how deeply entrenched everyday society remains in sexist ideals. Frannie's hardships illustrate that loyalty coerced is not loyalty at all-- it's oppression. Early on, Frannie is forced to face a world controlled by men. The spy's fond memories of her dead mother are inseparable from the pain she experienced. As a widow, Frannie's mother is rejected by her neighbors and accused of sleeping with other men. Her second husband, Sewel, abuses her. Initially, Frannie, thinking that loyalty binds her to family, tries to tolerate living with Sewel. She cannot continue, however, when her stepfather sexually assaults her. When Frannie dons the namesake of the rich Emmeline Coates to escape Sewel, she still suffers in a system that privileges male preferences: she is pawned off by her uncle to a potential suitor and frequently told that her intellect is "too masculine" and off-putting. Her love interest, a British lieutenant, presumes her loyalty to him without acknowledging the societal conventions that compelled their marriage. Prejudice underlies even moments meant to be light and enjoyable, such as "steal the bride" wedding festivities that revolve around treating women as objects to be protected and traded. Sewel, too, re-enters her life, a symbol of the mistreatment Frannie faces as a girl regardless of social status.  These power structures imbued coercion, not loyalty. 

The intersection of commentary on sexism with Frannie's immigrant background further distinguish this story. I've read a handful of historical fiction novels set during the Revolutionary War, including Avi's Sophia's War and Allison Pataki's The Traitor's Wife. Frannie's voice in Rebel Spy subverts the standards of the genre, successfully communicating the struggle of a daughter trying to reconcile her own desires with the expectations of a mother who continually sacrificed for her. Shouldering the pressure to fulfill her parent's dying wishes, regardless of the personal cost, grounds Frannie when she confronts difficult decisions. To live the life her mother wanted for her, Frannie seeks a loveless, comfortable marriage as Emmeline. This same pressure, however, drives the spy to later reflect on her mother's resilience and carve out her own definition of loyalty when she witnesses the cruelty of British elites. At times, the immigrant experience seems to demand paradoxical behavior: Frannie has to conform, but stand out. Rossi navigates these competing ideas and internal debates with ease to bring an underrepresented perspective to Revolutionary War fiction. 

Rossi's writing shines during Frannie's inner monologues. As a character, the spy's strongest moments emerge when she recognizes her own capabilities. She grapples with the grey in her relationships: how can she love a person who embodies flawed ideals? How can she endure the trauma of abuse? How can she live wearing another person's identity? As a writer, Rossi tackles these complex questions with vivid descriptions of the ocean and diving seven fathoms below the surface. In her imagination of the water, Frannie feels the surrounding water pressure until she swims low enough to find peace, clarity, and quiet. Men may have exposed her to readings like Thomas Paine's Common Sense, but she developed her own opinions and devised her own plans. The author beautifully articulates that Frannie's decision to spy is so powerful because it is her own choice -- what loyalty ought to be. 

My largest qualm with this book was that it didn't explore Frannie's spying with the same depth as the other aspects of her life. For a book titled "Rebel Spy" few pages are dedicated to actual espionage in comparison to the romantic subplots. Nearly half of the book passes before Frannie even becomes a spy. Even then, the Culper Ring fades into the background of a kind-of love triangle. The heroine's discoveries are loosely tied together at the conclusion of the story but could have benefited from greater development throughout. 

- ★★ -

About the Author: VERONICA ROSSI is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the UNDER THE NEVER SKY series. She was born in Rio de Janeiro, grew up in California, and graduated from UCLA. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area withher husband and two sons, one of whom just surpassed her in height. Find heronline at veronicarossi.com or on Twitter at @rossibooks. 


3 comments :

  1. Great review! I've seen the book around and had the chance to request it but I wasn't really sure if it was for me. It seems interesting to read some time soon though.

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    1. Thank you! I hadn't read a historical fiction book in a while and this hit the spot, although it wasn't my favorite.

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  2. I don't think I've ever read a book set during The Revolutionary War - or at least not in a long time. That's a shame the spying aspect wasn't utilized more though!

    -lauren
    www.shootingstarsmag.net

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