Author Sarah Beth Durst pays homage to Culper Spies in treasure-hunt adventure

Author Sarah Beth Durst pays homage to Culper Spies in treasure-hunt adventure

Author Sarah Beth Durst with a copy of her new book, 'Spy Ring.' Photo by Heidi Sutton

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The prolific and talented writer Sarah Beth Durst has published over two dozen books, with several reviewed in this publication: The Stone Girl’s Story, The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, Even and Odd, and most recently, the thriller The Lake House. Durst has a particular gift for world-building, which is most prevalent in her fantasy works. With the Young Adult novel Spy Ring [HarperCollins/Clarion Books], she embarks on a different setting—Long Island and the very real Setauket and its environs. 

Rachel and Joon have been best friends since kindergarten, when they bonded over a pirate fantasy. Now, eleven years old, in July, between fifth and sixth grade, they have decided to be spies. Additionally, the inseparable pair are facing Joon’s imminent move out of the district, both fearing the toll the distance will take on their friendship.

Rachel’s mother is marrying Dave, her longtime boyfriend, of whom Rachel likes and approves. Rachel overhears Dave telling her mother that he wants to give Rachel a family heirloom, a ring that might have belonged to Anna “Nancy” Smith Strong. Strong was possibly the only known female member of the famed Culper Spy Ring that fed vital information to George Washington from 1778 to 1783. (Thus, the double meaning of the title.) Given an opportunity, Rachel sneaks a look at the ring. Engraved on the inside is “August 1 6, 17 13. Find me.” With this first clue, Rachel and Joon initiate a quest to solve the significance of this cryptic inscription. 

Rachel and Joon’s search takes Nancy off the page and makes her real to the two young detectives. The story briskly zig-zags throughout the Three Village area, with visits to the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s cemetery and Patriots Rock, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, the Vance Locke murals at Setauket Elementary School, the Setauket Village Green, Frank Melville Memorial Park, the Setauket Grist Mill, and Caroline Episcopal Church. Durst describes each locale colorfully but succinctly as their hunt becomes an almost “history alive.” Central to the quest is time spent at the invaluable Three Village Historical Society, where they receive help, insight, and encouragement.

Durst has a terrific sense of humor, with the pair garnering one clue by remembering “the worst field trip ever.” She also gives insight into the complicated issue of historical accuracy.

“‘Sometimes historians make mistakes […] or more often, they don’t have all the information yet […] reconstructing history is like piecing together a puzzle where there’s no picture on the box, half the pieces have fallen on the floor, and the cat has eaten a quarter of them. You try to guess what the picture looks like as best you can with what you have.’”

Rachel and Joon learn that the Culper Spy Ring was the most effective espionage organization of the Revolutionary War. None of the spies ever admitted to being spies in their lifetime. Everything is theory, but much unearthed evidence supports these hypotheses. 

The author nimbly weaves historical facts and intriguing gems that paint a vivid picture of the time. She vibrantly imparts Rachel’s excitement:

The fizzing feeling was back. She had in her possession the ring of a spy who’d defied her enemies, aided George Washington, and helped found America. Even better, this spy had sent a message with her ring: Find me. This felt like the moment right before the sun poked over the horizon. Or right before a batch of dark clouds dumped buckets of rain. Or right before she bit into a fresh slice of pizza. 

The ability to communicate not just the narrative but the roiling feelings of the young—this aptly labeled “fizzing”—separates Durst from many less accomplished YA writers. The narrative is more than a mystery but a real novel of summer—of bike rides and bonds that run deep, about the fear of loss and the expectations of the future. 

One of the most evocative descriptions is that of a school during vacation:

It felt so strange to be in the school in July. The hallways looked as if they’d been abandoned. Half the bulletin boards were naked—only plain brown paper with a few leftover staples. Some staples had tufts of colorful construction paper stuck to them, like bits of party food caught in one’s teeth. 

Perfectly conjured is the combination of stillness and expectation. “It was strange to see a classroom without any students in it, in addition to the empty halls. It felt as if the whole school were holding its breath.”

A ring, a stone, a key, a powder horn, a codebook, a family Bible—even rudimentary invisible ink—are all part of this journey that is not so much historical fiction but history adjacent. 

In the end, one of the most powerful statements is the realization of why Strong left the clues. Rachel recognizes that “[Nancy] wanted someone to see her.” Sarah Beth Durst’s engaging Spy Ring offers two heroes. The first is a woman who may or may not have been the burgeoning nation’s Agent 355. The second is a spirited, insightful young person in a lively, magical adventure story.

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Meet the author at a book launch hosted by the Three Village Historical Society at the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., Setauket on Monday, May 20 at 7 p.m. The event is free. To pre-register, visit www.tvhs.org. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

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