In 1776, young Sophia Calderwood witnesses the execution of Nathan Hale in New York City, which is newly occupied by the British army. Sophia is horrified by the event and resolves to do all she can to help the American cause. Recruited as a spy, she becomes a maid in the home of General Clinton, the supreme commander of the British forces in America. Through her work she becomes aware that someone in the American army might be switching sides, and she uncovers a plot that will grievously damage the Americans if it succeeds. But the identity of the would-be traitor is so shocking that no one believes her, and so Sophia decides to stop the treacherous plot herself, at great personal peril: She’s young, she’s a girl, and she’s running out of time. And if she fails, she’s facing an execution of her own.
Master storyteller Avi shows exactly how personal politics can be in this “nail-biting thriller” (Publishers Weekly) that is rich in historical detail and rife with action.
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 23, 1937
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:University of Wisconsin; M.A. in Library Science from Columbia University, 1964
Read an Excerpt
IN THE MOMENTOUS year of 1776, on the twenty-second of September, my mother and I were rushing back to the city of New York. New York was where I was born, and where I had lived peacefully until just a few weeks before, when we had fled in fear for our lives. The war for our country’s independence had come to our door.
First, my brother, William, along with thousands of other patriot soldiers, ferried across the East River to the village of Brooklyn to defend the city from a British attack. Alarmed by the danger, my father warned us we might have to leave. And indeed, the Americans lost that battle and retreated through Manhattan as Great Britain gained complete control of the city.
But there was no news of William.
Desperately worried, I could only hope he was still with General Washington’s army, and not taken prisoner. At times—though no one spoke it—we feared he had he been killed.
Too frightened to wait until we could find out, Father had said we must leave our house. It was a wise decision. Soon after British troops occupied New York, a fire erupted and destroyed many buildings. But since we had taken flight to a friend’s farm north of the city, we lacked information about our home’s condition. Knowing that everything we had—money and possessions—might have been consumed in the fire, much of our lives was in awful derangement. After some days passed, Father and Mother decided that we must go home—if we still had one—and try to reclaim our lives.
Not sure how secure the way would be, Father made the decision that Mother and I, being females, should travel first. It was his belief that English soldiers would not harm a mother and child. “Are they not,” he said, “our kinsmen and a civilized people?” Moreover, we would travel on a Sunday, Lords Day. Surely, all would be peaceful. As soon as Father determined that the roads were not dangerous for him, he would follow.
So it was that before dawn on Sunday morning, Mother and I, full of disquietude, set out to walk the twelve miles to the city. With me clutching Mother’s hand tightly and barely looking up, we took the road called Harlem Lane. I may have been willowy for my twelve years of age, and my name was Sophia (the Greek word for “wisdom”), but you could just as well have called me “Frightened” and been done with it. In truth, as we hurried along, all my thoughts were on William. He must come home!
It was late morning when we reached the outskirts of New York. By then my wood-soled shoes were soaking wet, my ankle-length linsey-woolsey dress was mud spattered, and the laces of my bonnet—a mobcap—would not stay tied.
As we approached a ripe apple orchard, we observed a group of red-coated British soldiers, armed with muskets and bayonets, marching toward us. By their side, a drummer boy beat slow swinking strokes. An officer, a heavy, sweating man with a nose as bright red as his hair and uniform, strode along in high, black jack-boots. Following him was a Negro. His slave, I supposed.
In the middle of the soldiers was a man whose hands were tied behind his back. Looking to be in his mid-twenties, and some six feet in height, he was considerably taller than the soldiers who surrounded him. Dressed in civilian clothing, he wore no jacket and had a white muslin shirt open at the collar. His light brown hair was arranged pigtail-style. In the slanting morning light, I noticed his blue eyes. I will admit, I thought him handsome.
The young man walked with a dignified bearing, but his face was anything but serene. Rather, he bore a look of pale, raw intensity, with a gaze that appeared to be on nothing and everything at the same moment.
“What are they doing with that young man?” I said in a low voice to Mother.
She squeezed my hand, and in as fearful a voice as I had ever heard her utter, she said, “I think they are about to hang him.”
Openmouthed, I watched as the men approached an apple tree upon which a ladder leaned. From a stout branch, a noose hung. Just beyond gaped an open grave, with a grave digger standing by, shovel in hand. We stopped and, along with a few other citizens, watched.
When the officer shoved the prisoner to the foot of the ladder, I heard the young man say, “May I have a . . . Bible?” His voice, low and steady, broke on the last word.
“No Bibles for damned rebel spies!” the officer shouted as if he wished us onlookers to hear. “Hoist him,” he commanded.
Three redcoats, their faces blank, stepped forward. Two grabbed the young man’s arms as if to restrain him, though I saw no attempt to break free. Would that he had! The third soldier placed the noose round the prisoner’s neck and forced him up the ladder steps, even as another drew the rope tight under his chin.
As they did these things, each beat of the pulsing drum stabbed my heart.
Mother covered her lips with her fingers.
“Do you wish to confess?” the officer shouted.
I think the youth replied, but I was so appalled, I could not comprehend his words. In fact, such was my distress that I cried, “Have pity, sir. For God’s sake!”
The officer glared at me. “Be still, missy, or you’ll come to the same fate!”
I shrank behind Mother but peeked round to watch.
The officer turned back to his soldiers and shouted, “Swing the rebel off!”
One of the soldiers kicked the ladder away. The young man dropped. I gasped. His neck must have broken, for he died in an instant. Perhaps that was God’s mercy. Sometimes a hanging is nothing but slow strangulation.
Mother, pulling my hand, said, “Sophia! Come!” Sobbing, I stumbled away.
Later we learned that the young man’s name was Nathan Hale. Over time, his death proved of greater consequence than his life. Without any doubt, it altered the history of my country as it altered mine. Indeed, what I had just witnessed was the beginning of my extraordinary adventures.
I shall tell you what happened.
What People are Saying About This
* “The book’s riveting opening scene, in which Sophie watches as Nathan Hale is hanged as a spy, foreshadows the danger she knowingly accepts by engaging in espionage. Few historical novels are as closely shaped by actual events as this one during the last 100 pages. Working within the bounds of credibility, Avi manages to keep the fictional narrator on the scene for a good deal of the action and uses real moments to bring the imagined story to its dramatic heights. A glossary of eighteenth-century terms and an author’s note are appended. Pair this intriguing historical novel with Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold (2010).”
—Booklist August 1, 2012, *STAR
* “Newbery Medalist Avi (Crispin: The Cross of Lead) channels the mood, language, and danger of the Revolutionary War in this seamless blend of history and fiction, set in British-occupied New York City…. The book is chockful of fascinating historical details, including the conditions for those stranded in New York and the failed meetings between Arnold and John André, his (real-life) British contact. Avi doesn’t sugarcoat the brutal realities of war…in this rich, nail-biting thriller.”
—Publishers Weekly, August 13, 2012, *STAR
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide for Sophia’s War: A Tale of the Revolution By Avi About the Book In 1776, the War of Independence comes to New York City and to twelve-year-old Sophia Calderwood’s family. William, her older soldier brother, has been missing since the defeat of George Washington’s Army at the Battle of Brooklyn. When the British occupy the city, Lieutenant John André of the English Army is boarded at the Calderwood home. He and Sophia develop a flirtatious friendship, which is tested when the girl discovers that William is being held in the Sugarhouse, a notorious British prison. She hopes André can help. When he chooses not to, Sophia struggles to save her brother herself. Three years later, Sophia becomes a spy in the headquarters of the British Army. There she finds André, now a major, working to enable a highly placed American general to become a traitor, a treason that will endanger the whole American war effort. Deciding to stop the treason—and motivated by personal revenge—Sophia becomes desperate. However, as Sophia learns, desperation’s other name is deception. Indeed, the desperate characters in this thrilling tale of spies and counterspies act out many acts of deception, not least by Sophia herself. Based on true tales of the Revolution, carefully researched, this story will shock and enthrall even those who think they know what happened during the American Revolution. Sophia's War is Avi at his best, a haunting historical thriller. The Three Story Threads Avi has identified three “story threads” in Sophia’s War: Thread 1 is Part 1: The treatment of American prisoners by the British in New York City during the Revolution. Thread 2 is Part 2: The true story is that of British Major John André and General Benedict Arnold. Thread 3 is Sophia Calderwood’s story: a tale of fiction and the link between these first two threads. Part I: Text-Generated Questions 1. When the story opens on September 22, 1776, Sophia is a surprise witness to a hanging. Explain Sophia’s situation and that of her family. How does the hanging affect her? 2. What kind of man was young William Calderwood? What influence did he have on Sophia during his life? 3. In Chapter 4, Sophia’s mother snaps, “Child, what we think and what we say can no longer be the same!” What has sparked this statement? Was Sophia’s father right to sign the Oath of Allegiance to King George? Find another example of how “The war made deception our way of life.” (Chapter 15) 4. How does the boarder, John André, compare to Lieutenant André? How did his presence affect Sophia and her family? Does she feel affection for him? 5. What dangers does Sophia face as she searches for William at King’s College, then the Sugarhouse, and finally The Good Intent? What does her search show about her character? 6. How does Avi describe the conditions in the Sugarhouse? (Chapter 24) Who is responsible for these conditions? 7. Why would the British move American prisoners to a ship in the harbor and use it as their prison? In Chapter 27 Sophia says as she boards The Good Intent that “This was not mere disregard and ignorance. This, by multiple degrees, was murder.” Explain her meaning. 8. Who is responsible for William’s death? How does William’s death change Sophia? Would this same change have happened if he had died in battle? 9. The ship named The Good Intent is an example of irony in this story. Irony is an incongruity between what actually happens and what might be expected to happen. Explain the irony in the ship’s name. 10. What do we learn about Benedict Arnold in Part I? Part II: Text-Generated Questions 1. “To lose a loved one is but part of living life, whereas to have a loved one vanish is a living death.” How does this apply to Sophia and her family? When Chapter 29 begins, how is the family changed by William’s death? How has the war changed by 1780? 2. What part does Robert Townsend play in this story? 3. How has Major John André changed since he was last with Sophia, in Part I? How could his new position affect Sophia? How did the poem he wrote for Sophia lead to his undoing? 4. Explain the importance of each of these in Sophia’s War: • Culper • HESH • Reverend Odell • West Point • Tallmadge • Anderson • Mr. Moore • Molly Saville 5. What would Sophia say was the key to her reaching the meeting place for André and Arnold? 6. How was the Vulture being fired upon and towed downriver a turning point in the meeting between André and Arnold? 7. What stands in the way of any adults believing Sophia and her story of Arnold’s treason? 8. How does Mr. Paulding play a key role in the arrest of Major André? Why did Colonel Jameson send André to General Arnold? What motivates Major Tallmadge to intervene? How does Arnold incriminate himself? 9. Why does Sophia need to see André? What did Sophia accomplish in talking to him? How does his treatment as a prisoner differ from that which William received in the Sugarhouse? 10. Should André have been hung? Beyond the Text 1. In Chapter 2, Sophia mentions “the crimes the British had committed—as cited in our Independence Declaration”. Read the Declaration of Independence http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/. Key in on the list of grievances listed against King George III. Which of these grievances are specifically parts of Sophia’s story? How did each affect the people and the war? 2. Find an instance in Avi’s writing of how his attention to detail and his research adds to our knowledge of the time and place. 3. In Chapter 17, Mr. Paine is quoted: “our new nation is a blank sheet for us to write upon.” How does Sophia step out of her life to create her mark on this “blank sheet”? 4. In Chapter 2, William tells Sophia, “Liberty shall always triumph over tyranny.” Was this quote proved or disproved in Sophia’s War? 5. Research the following mentioned in Sophia’s War and their importance in these times. • Nathan Hale • Thomas Paine, Common Sense • John Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration • Alexander Hamilton • King George III and his Parliament • Loyalists vs. Patriots • Hessian soldiers • General Washington 6. André tells Sophia in Chapter 22, “A promise to a girl is not a pledge to a lady. You are not yet a lady.” Explain how André recognizes Sophia as a lady in Part 2. 7. Deception was the original title for this book. List all the ways deception was part of this story. 8. In Chapter 58, Avi writes, “In war, all are prisoners.” What do you think he meant? 9. In what ways does telling the truth about herself embarrass and pain Sophia? Sophia says at the end of the story, “I no longer wish to be at war with myself.” What does she mean? 10. Return to Sophia’s “Dear Reader” letter at the beginning of the story. Was Sophia right to act in such a way? What did she contribute to the times? Write Sophia a letter in which you answer her. Common Core Standards R.CCR.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. R.CCR.2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. R.CCR.3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text. R.CCR.4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone. R.CCR.5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole. R.CCR.6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text. R.CCR.7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. W.CCR.4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. W.CCR.5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. W.CCR.7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. Guide written by Jan McDonald of Rocky Mountain Readers This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. This guide was written to align with the Common Core State Standards (www.corestandards.org).