Kidnapped! Richard Morris, falsely accused of spying in this Revolutionary War story, is conscripted into the British army in this coming-of-age tale. Observing the British burning and looting, and women forced to pick up guns, Richard’s Loyalist beliefs are challenged. Eventually he finds his way into George Washington’s Army, where he earns a place as a real spy among the raggedy men fighting the greatest empire on earth. In critical moments, Richard clarifies his own values and gains the courage to follow them. This book has been praised “with plenty of drama, tension and mystery throughout... to keep the reader wanting more.”
Spy novel is a true historic page-turner
June 16, 2011
Northern Valley Suburbanite
"A Spy is Not a Spy" by Mary F. Blehl
Richard Morris is a New Jersey teenager, the only male muscle on his late father's farm at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Youthful curiosity and an impetuous sense of adventure leads to his capture by a British contingent and he is soon pressed into the King's service.
This is the premise of "A Spy is Not a Spy," a delightfully profound, compelling yet compact book by school librarian and author Mary F. Blehl.
Richard Morris's adventures take him throughout New Jersey and to many of the landmarks associated with the Revolutionary War in a state which proved pivotal in the conflict. Along the way, he is confronted by some of the most fundamental issues of manhood and warfare — the parameters of loyalty, the value of friendship, the depth of inhumanity, the meaning of courage, the inevitability of loss and the morality of violence.
The annual celebrations of our independence tend to overlook the extent to which the inhabitants of colonial America were divided over the revolutionary conflict. This was especially so in New Jersey, where there were many first generation immigrants from Britain who remained loyalists. Even among the supporters of independence, there was widespread and well justified skepticism that a ragtag army of ill-equipped farmers could defeat the mightiest military power on earth.
Richard Morris experiences the horrors of the conflict first hand, among them, burying the dead from the prison ship, Jersey, where 1,400 prisoners were crammed, in inhumane conditions, into a space for 400. He learns the meaning of heroism and faces the moral dilemma of when an oath and loyalty to a king may be set aside for loyalty to higher purpose. He meets George Washington himself and is trained in codes and espionage – and ultimately plays a defining role in the war.
Morris, his mother Mary, sister Amy and loyalist neighbor were real people, whose names and family associations were culled from library records. The story about them is fiction, set against a backdrop of real events and landmark locations during the Revolutionary War. A home near Hackensack, for example, owned by the Van family, which features prominently in the story, is very clearly based on the real Von Steuben house at New Bridge Landing.
More than just an adventure story, "A Spy is Not a Spy" is also fascinating social history. Every sentence drips with authenticity about the discomforts and travails of daily life in colonial America, from the unappealing diet and cramped sleeping arrangements to the furniture and hand made clothes. It also brings to life in very simple language and precise detail, the everyday dangers, divisions and fears arising from life in an occupied territory.
Some readers may be familiar with Mary Blehl, having heard her read her poetry at the Englewood library and elsewhere. She has been the librarian at Ridgefield High School for the last 14 years. She originally wrote "A Spy is Not a Spy" for students learning English as a second language and for readers at a fourth grade level. Its literary style is therefore direct, with short, simple and precise sentences.
In the hands of a less adept writer, this might have made it almost unreadable for anyone other than an ESL student. Instead, it is highly accessible for readers of almost any age, while dealing with complex issues and maintaining a high interest level.
Hackensack Middle School students take part in 'reader's theater'
In an effort to enhance the curriculum of fifth-graders and offer a more local view on history, Hackensack Middle School invited author and Hackensack resident, Mary Blehl, to join in the discussion of the city during the Revolutionary War.
Blehl, author of "A Spy Is Not A Spy," spoke, on May 20, to the students about life in Hackensack during the war, as well as the writing process.
According to Blehl, the community has incredible resources for research. Recounting her research and writing process, Blehl said she visited a couple of local institutions to gain a more profound foundation as to how life was in the mid-1770s. The first stop in her research process was Johnson Public Library where she was taken aback when directed to a case that held historical documents and books.
"I went to the Johnson Public Library and was given a book so old that the pages crumbled in my fingers," she said.
The importance of libraries and their sources are critical in any writing process, Blehl told the middle schoolers.
After her lecture, students were invited to take part in a "readers' theater" to better grasp and understand how children their age lived during the war.
"I wanted to write a book to correspond with the curriculum," Blehl said.
The goal of bringing guests and setting up coinciding activities to enhance the curriculum is one of the main goals of HMS Library Media Specialist Maureen Carroll, the organizer of the event.
"It was just perfect timing and a way to tie into what [the students] are learning about in their class," she said.
According to Carroll, the school's library is also joining forces with Johnson Public Library in monthly book talks, showcasing new titles to students, and looking at book trends to better foster the students' love of reading.
"Our job is to try and connect - as often as we can - with at least one text to [the students'] lives and what they are learning," she said.