Brian Kilmeade’s latest book, George Washington’s Secret Six, tells the story of the Culper Spy Ring. Operating between New York City and Long Island, the ring helped shorten the odds for the underdog Patriots. Without the ring, the American Revolution might have faltered or even failed.
It’s a good read because Brian is an accomplished Fox cable TV presenter. And because his co-author, Don Yaeger, is a best-selling ghostwriter. Together they exude excitement. (Kilmeade narrates the audio edition, ratcheting up the enthusiasm.)
The flaw, of course, is not enthusiasm but invention. The authors stick to the facts, for the most part, but flesh out the narrative with robust dialog that seems too good to be true. And too modern. In fact, the authors invented much of it, as they reveal in the prologue.
They also contrive to tell us how the historical figures felt, what they thought, and what motivated them. A good trick at a remove of over 200 years with no hard evidence.
It is no crime to invent dialog, impute feelings and thoughts, and assign motivation. Narrative history writers don’t do it, but historical fiction writers do it all the time. George Washington’s Secret Six could be superb historical fiction.
But it fails the test of accuracy.
Kilmeade and Yaeger make history come alive with their vivid portraits of the six spies. But their portrait of Washington looks a lot like the Great General painted by Charles Willson Peale. How true to life could their Secret Six be when they get George Washington wrong?
Washington was a great leader, but only those who believe the cherry tree myth also believe him a talented tactician. In war, he was lucky, smart enough to learn from his mistakes, and also to rely on good counsel. But he was a military bungler. (Sorry George.)
The book’s other shortcomings are just as naive. It focuses, as it should, on the Culper Spy Ring, but it skips over or ignores other significant events of the period. Hey guys, it took more than six spies to win the Revolution.
And the book’s paeans to American patriotism and blatant calls to venerate the Secret Six just don’t belong. Not in narrative history, not in historical fiction.
In short, George Washington’s Secret Six is great fun to read. But on a spectrum of historical believability stretching from NPR to the National Enquirer, it ranks like Fox News. No surprise.