Washington at Valley Forge by Russell Freedman

Lynn: I know that for most of us, any new book by Russell Freedman is an automatic purchase. I also know that due to overwhelming schedules, we often put great nonfiction right on the shelf, vowing to find time to read it soon. Well, this is Mother Lynn nagging you – don’t miss this book! Freedman takes a story we all think we know and makes it gripping, suspenseful and unforgettable. Washington at Valley Forge (Holiday House, 2008) is almost an instruction manual on how to write outstanding nonfiction as Russell describes how Washington remade his tattered army at Valley Forge. First, he paints a sobering picture of the desperate shape of the men and the horrifying conditions of the camp at the start of the winter. Then he details the revitalization of that army describing how Washington systematically addressed the many problems from smoke-filled cabins to supply chains to political enemies. Washington recruited skilled help, assigning Major General Greene to tackle supply line issues, Baron von Steuben to address training and well-educated aides as “pen-men” to assist with the volumes of correspondence. Freedman enlivens the text with primary sources, including letters and writings from ordinary soldiers and also provides ample background material. Freedman’s careful choices illuminate both the people and the time as in this wonderful quote from Baron von Stueben in 1778 about the unique character of Americans.

“The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French. You say to your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason that you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.”

Washington emerges as a remarkable leader, dedicated, sincerely concerned for his men, smart and courageous. Freedman takes this event so familiar to us all and brings it vividly to life, allowing us to conclude that without Washington’s heroic efforts that winter, the Revolution would have failed. This is nonfiction writing at its best. So listen to Mother Lynn and don’t delay reading this fascinating story.

Cindy: I’m writing this with frozen toes after returning from my daughter’s downhill ski races. How did Washington’s men do it? I mean, I have Sorell boots guaranteed to -40 (F) and stayed out only a few hours with some hot chocolate breaks inside and these guys had holey socks and no shoes and spent the entire winter that way! I digress, but it is indicative of Freedman’s writing that you feel like you are there with his subjects, but also that you learn the motivations behind their actions. Washington’s unwillingness to respond to his critics might baffle young readers raised in a “me” society, but Freedman clearly explains why Washington held his tongue and pen in order to not compromise the security of his troops and their cause. Women’s contributions to the successful winter at Valley Forge are included too, from Martha joining George at the camp and visiting the men, to the settlements of women and girlfriends who followed their soldiers and tried to keep their few bits of clothes in repair, to a passage about Molly Pitcher who put down her water jugs to take over as a cannon muzzle loader when needed. My brain is still too frozen to critique coherently, but listen to Mother Lynn and read this book while the snow still flies (here in Michigan anyway!) Oh, and this might be the first time I’ve seen Wikipedia cited in the photo credits of a children’s nonfiction book…



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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