Non-fiction Review: The Poison Plot, by Elaine Forman Crane

book coverThis is a tale about Benedict Arnold and the scandalous doings of his wife, Mary. That’s right, I said Benedict Arnold. Only, it’s not about THE Benedict Arnold who was the hero of Ticonderoga and later become an infamous traitor. It’s not even about his parents, Benedict and Hannah. In fact, it’s hard to tell which member of the Arnold clan it is about. I spent a ridiculous amount of time using independent genealogical sources (amateur genealogist that I am), and couldn’t figure it out. Cornell professor Elaine Forman Crane wants us, the readers, to believe The Poison Plot is about the General’s grandfather.

But wait. In an extensive introduction, Professor Crane suggests that “General Benedict Arnold may not have been an Arnold at all.” Er, what? She also seems to absolve Mary before the narrative gets going, and proceeds to list a number of reasons why Mary might’ve done what she did. Or didn’t. She then describes what’s in each chapter, and it’s apparent that this work is not wholly about the Arnolds. If you’re looking for a chronological narrative from their first meeting through their marriage and subsequent divorce proceedings and accusations of attempted murder, as I thought I would get, this will not be a book for you. Crane’s focus is subject-based rather than chronologically so, and there’s a lot of jumping back and forth in terms of dates.

Because so many men in the Arnold family were named Benedict, the electronic copy I reviewed would’ve benefitted from the inclusion of a family tree. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m an amateur genealogist. I’ve researched both my family and that of my husband. Because of that interest, I dove into the online records available for both the Arnold family and for Rhode Island. I’ve discovered during my family research that the colonies were, in general, pretty good at keeping vital statistics, and Ancestry includes a database of Rhode Island vital statistics from 1636 to 1899. Our Benedict and Mary should’ve been in it, but nowhere could I find anyone with their names whose vitals matched or came remotely close.

Over 25 percent of my electronic copy is comprised of the notes and index. I tend to scan through notes, especially on an e-reader, mainly because I find it more difficult to flip back and forth as with a paper book. Buried in the notes, Crane suggests that maybe our Benedict and Mary weren’t actually married. Crane doesn’t cite any evidence for this, but perhaps it’s the lack of it that serves as proof. Still, that’s a bit of a bombshell to drop in the middle of notes that may or may not be read. It also begs two questions: why didn’t he marry her, and why didn’t her family insist he marry her?

Despite the lack of linear narrative and the genealogy confusion, I did find elements of this book to enjoy. Crane describes early 18th century life in detail, from how Newport residents got their news to what they purchased at various stores. I’ve always wanted to visit Newport, but my interest was in the Gilded Age and the wealthy families who had their summer homes there. Now, I’d like to see Newport’s colonial history as well.

Sadly, the details of Newport society and colonial life weren’t enough to make me enjoy The Poison Plot. Perhaps I’d thought I’d get “a tale” and “an intimate drama,” terms used in the publisher’s overview, focusing specifically on the two main characters. Admittedly, the genealogical issues put me off from almost the beginning because I couldn’t tell for sure if I was reading an alternate history or a fact-based biography. By the time I finished, I felt I’d read a dry, cultural history thesis about women and marriage. For Professor Crane’s students, that might be enough. But for the average reader, it’s anything but entertaining. Oh, and the comment about the General not actually being an Arnold? Crane suggests that maybe Benedict’s first wife was already pregnant with the General’s father when he married her. Regardless of the circumstances, he was named Benedict Arnold and his son became both the hero of Ticonderoga and a traitor to a fledgling republic.

I received a download of The Poison Plot from Cornell University Press, via NetGalley. My words and opinions are my own.

Product Details:

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Publication Date: 15 May 2018



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