MAJOR ANDRE by Anthony Bailey


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More wildely known for his nonfiction (including the autobiographical America, Lost and Found--1980--and England, First & Last--1985), English-born Bailey brings us here a readable, compact, and dramatically uncompromising historical novel about Benedict Arnold's failed conspiracy to give West Point over to the British during the Revolution. Arnold's prime contact on the enemy staff is Major John AndrÉ (who really lived), whom the reader follows from the night in 1780 when he first is rowed ashore at Tappan, from the anchored British ship Vulture, to meet secretly with Arnold. Andre's commander has cautiously advised him not ""to put off my uniform, to go within the American lines, or receive any papers."" One minor error is compounded by another, however (whether this happens by chance, by AndrÉ's poor judgment, or by Arnold's purposeful conniving is never made entirely clear either by Bailey or by history), and AndrÉ finds himself making all three forbidden errors--with the result that he's seized by American sympathizers, behind enemy lines (near ""the White Plains"" on his way down to New York on horseback), not wearing his British uniform, and carrying (in his boots) the incriminating papers--showing the British how to attack and how to take West Point--given him by Arnold. The upshot is (after some American uncertainty about what it is they've actually stumbled on--a delay that gives Arnold himself time to escape to the British side) that AndrÉ is tried, found to be a spy, and sentenced to death. As he awaits his execution, he narrates the novel, speaking in a form of interior monologue to his officer-guards, explaining the details of what has happened to him over the past few days and--equally rich for the reader--reminiscing about his life before that. What emerges is a portrait of an 18th-century man of honor--poet, actor, lover, gentleman--who insists, at the end, only upon dying as decorously and respectably as he is able. Filled with learning that's worn lightly, and done without clichÉ or the sensational, but with carefully telling brushstrokes of truth throughout: this is quietly satisfying fiction of the finest rank.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1987
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux