I know, I know… months ago I told y’all that I’d have the review of The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch… but better late than never, right? (The end of 2021 was a little overwhelming, so thank you so much for your patience and sticking with me! ❤ much love)
So let’s get into it, shall we–this was a fabulous, but dense book! I loved the author’s notes, I loved the pages upon pages of bibliography, I loved that Meltzer and Mensh (M&M) included a “Cast of Characters” because let’s face it, there were a ton of important people involved and some of their names are outdated or just kinda funny to say. (Like Gov. Tryon, I kept misreading his name… and thank goodness for Hamilton because I would’ve never known how to say Mr. Schuyler’s name without it!) I really appreciate when authors give readers peeks into their writing process, especially when it comes to research. Any work that gives someone the opportunity to fall down internet rabbit holes of knowledge instantly gets a big thumbs up from me. Plus, having personally been to DC just a few months ago–and finally visiting Mount Vernon, which has a fabulous learning center–it was super satisfying and fascinating to learn even more from your basic “this was George, he really enjoyed horticulture and also he was a major figure in the war…obviously” view that we usually see.
For example, during my visit to Mount Vernon, I learned a little more about Washington’s military background (and his interest in plants–who knew that he had one of the first ever hot houses in America and was super into citrus?), but through M&M’s book, we got to see a little bit more about him as a person in his various roles of commander, delegate etc. I had learned that personal integrity was important to George, but I felt like through this book, I got to really see that by M&M’s examples of letters he wrote to the army or to other historical figures like John Hancock. Similarly, I learned more about how he thought through things–keeping things close to the vest, making sure that all his men escaped from a perilous situation before he did, taking time to check in on people because he was one of the few immune to smallpox. It’s super clear that M&M took time to really get to know George–I mean, after reading the book, I feel like he and I are on a familiar, first name basis. ;P
My favorite thing, however, is the writing style. This book reads like a documentary, so, if TV-day in history class was your jam, I think this book is definitely worth checking out! That said, it is dense so it took me longer than usual (well, life also got in the way, so there’s that too) to read through it. My copy is fairly small, it fits in my purse, but it’s thick at ~400 pages of book, plus about 60 pages of notes, bibliography, etc. But back to the writing style– M&M write casually, sometimes even almost sassily, adding in little remarks like “A secret plot. William Tryon. Traitors in the army. The story is shocking. Horrifying, in fact./Could Ketcham just be making it up?” (269). Okay, maybe that remark isn’t “sassy,” per se, but the little “horrifying” made me grin. But even if “sassy” isn’t the right word, switching up the writing so that it’s not just prose-prose-prose-quote-prose makes the book engaging and breaks up the monotony that I often find with nonfiction… especially historical nonfiction.
Moreover, M&M is incredibly descriptive–anytime Gilbert Forbes came up, I knew he was a “short, thick” man with a white coat, for example. So, to go back to my comment about watching a documentary, the description is so well done that it’s like seeing everything unfold. From Forbes’s coat to Washington’s brand new uniform, to a crotchety man scheming on a ship, to biscuits so tasty, even the British wouldn’t arrest the guy–it’s all. So. Good.
Something I found somewhat impressive about the book is how M&M wove together various sub-plots, if you will, into one bigger story. Upon a glance, I definitely thought “huh, I wonder who planned to kill Washington?” and then in reading the book, I wondered “wait, who are the young brothers [they’re counterfeiters] and what do they have to do with this plot??” But it all comes together so well–characters who you think are fleeting come back and as a reader, we get to see how nuanced this plot really was. I also thought it was really interesting how M&M tied up various character’s stories–some got nice little bows, like Mayor Mathews (he got moved to Canada and died there, now only a park in New York bears his name) while others were more mysterious: Did something happen to Mary Smith, or was she just exiled? Not that telling everyone’s fate was central to this book, but it was kind of nice to know.
Now for the part y’all have probably been waiting for… do I recommend it or not?
I absolutely do if you like history, nonfiction, and/or documentaries. If you’re interested in the military and/or espionage, you’ll also probably enjoy this book. If, however, all of those things bore you (I still think you should try it because it’s just really interesting), this probably won’t be your next favorite read.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for now! I’m excited to be working with AD Wills once more on his book, The Keeper’s Codex.