Dude, look at this cover. For a long time as a kid I was really confused about this cover because it looks like the character is carrying around a tray while the house is being slowly consumed by a fiery blaze, and she doesn’t know what to do. But there is no house fire in the book, so I think it’s maybe just a horrible design choice?
Finishing Becca, Ann Rinaldi, 1994.
Why do I remember Ann Rinaldi as being so much more interesting than she actually was? All of her books that I’ve reviewed so far fall somewhere between “super dull” and “what happened here in my memory?” They’re accurate, all right, but it’s like a combination between reading a very animated textbook and an extremely boring novel.
Becca, the titular protagonist, lives in the countryside outside Philadelphia with her mother and stepfather after her brother has gone off to fight for the Americans. When Becca’s father was alive, he was a master silversmith, and the family was in better circumstances, but now they live on a farm and manage to make ends meet, but just so. Her mother does dyeing and works as a seamstress for some of Philadelphia’s most elegant families, and tells Becca about all of the families and who’s related to who and all that. Becca internalizes this and feels that if she only had the trappings of a wealthy life (learning to dance and play music and speak French and all that), she could “finish herself.” Not in a Death Wish type way, in a completed way. Hence the title.
Now, in the end Becca learns that all that doesn’t really mean anything if you aren’t secure in who you are to begin with, but it’s not a spectacular premise.
Becca’s mother knows all of this, and she takes Becca along with her when she goes to the Shippen household because they’ve been looking for a maidservant for the youngest Shippen daughter, Peggy. Peggy is a spoiled, selfish brat, but Becca doesn’t really mind that so long as she gets to work there and in return, gets to learn all of that stuff that she so desperately wants to learn. I will note that even by the forgiving standards of the 1770s, this is a raw deal. Pay up, Shippens. (Side note on something that irritates me: Mr. Shippen is noted as writing something on “expensive vellum,” which turns out to be a note to Becca’s mother that he’s agreeing to hire her, but even then vellum was extremely expensive and there’s no way anyone would use it for a note to a seamstress. And then two paragraphs later, Becca takes the letter and notes “[i]t was made of handmade linen.” Nice editing.)
Anyway, Becca’s stepfather is very grouchy that Becca is leaving, but after bitching about it for a while he cautions her against dishonouring herself by letting other people think she is less than them, or by forgetting who she is. Which is maybe the only decent advice in this book. He gives her some money so she won’t be caught flatfooted, and then she’s off to Philly. In the Shippen home she befriends Coxie, the slave who is the cook and then we’re back to something else that drives me insane—all of Coxie’s dialogue is written in dialect, which comes across as racist and weird. When speaking about another servant—“She be high yellow, chile. Her master make free wif her mamma. She be a Lee. Her mistress like to carve her up wif a knife.” I don’t even know what to make of that. Anyway, Coxie warns her against Captain Andre, Peggy’s latest beau and a British captain, who likes to be pretty free himself with any woman who passes by.
Becca’s first encounter with Peggy is in Peggy’s bedroom, where she’s throwing an epic tantrum in front of her mother. Peggy gets all bitchy with Becca and tells her that her mother (Peggy’s mother) is a weak and useless woman and Peggy is her father’s true confidante, which is laughable in its falsehood, and all of this just serves to show Becca that Peggy is a nasty little bit of baggage.
Creepy Captain Andre comes for dinner to tell everyone that the king is considering granting the colonies some concessions, and that General Howe is going to be retreating and the officers are all throwing a big party to celebrate. This is the only part Peggy pays attention to, of course, and her parents allow her and her sisters to go, but she doesn’t quite tell her parents that the officers are going to have the American girls wearing the costumes of Turkish slave girls since they’re not “ladies in the British sense” and thus can’t be dressed like them. I swear. Elizabeth, Peggy’s eldest sister, tells Peggy she’s being a fool, but can’t convince her to not go to this mess. Instead, Elizabeth asks Becca to help her smuggle an escaped American prisoner, and tells her that her dopey stepfather is actually a spy for the American side.
So the girls go off and spend absurd amounts of money on gowns for this mess, and that night Becca helps Elizabeth help a young man to get out of his prisoner-of-war camp and out to the countryside where he can recuperate properly. When Becca goes home to visit her mother and fill her in on all the exciting and weird events in the Shippen house, they go to Valley Forge to visit Becca’s brother and give him some food since spoiler alert: Valley Forge wasn’t a great time for everyone. Becca’s stepfather is pissed when he hears that her mom is going to be making the dresses for the Shippen girls, but she rightly points out that she’s their dressmaker and they pay well, and they’re not exactly rolling in the dough. He points out it’s ridiculous for anyone to spend money on that kind of ball when men are dying in Valley Forge, like, you know, Becca’s brother, but they just argue and argue and nothing is resolved.
Back in Philly, Becca’s friend’s mother tells her to tell her own mother to settle up before the ball, since everyone knows it’s going to be a giant disaster and the attendees are going to be marked men once the British pull out. And to that effect, a group of Quakers (the Shippens are Quakers, at least nominally, which means technically they’re neutral) approach Peggy’s father to tell him what a mess this will be, but Peggy and her sisters go off to a different ball in the run-up to the big day. It isn’t until Peggy’s father sees the “Turkish slave girl” costumes that he says they can’t go, and Peggy loses her shit and has a total meltdown in her room, and then refuses to get out of bed for a week. Three weeks later the British leave Philadelphia, and Andre is implicated in stealing a bunch of people’s things.
But who moves in after that but Benedict Arnold? Here is my problem with the pacing of this book: Don’t say on the cover it’s a story of “Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold” and not introduce the second character until page 210 of a 342-page book! It leaves far, far less room than you actually need to discuss their relationship, because the whole thing here is that Peggy turned Benedict traitor by encouraging him to go over to the Tory side because it would mean the Tories would win and he’d be handsomely rewarded. But there’s barely any setup, just a one-page “chapter” (printed in italics, because why not) about how Becca knew when they first saw each other that Peggy and Benedict would be trouble. And that’s it, then we’re just supposed to believe that they’re violently attracted to each other because Becca says so. Ann: Show, not tell.
Benedict begins courting Peggy more or less immediately, but Becca takes off to go visit her family and it turns out that the soldier she helped escape is now working on their farm as Henry Job’s assistant, and the farm is doing great. But while things there are improving, things are the Shippen house are steadily devolving, where Becky is throwing tantrums left and right and gossip about Benedict Arnold is running wild with the Shippen family at its center. Peggy declares that she’s going to marry Benedict Arnold, regardless of what her father thinks, but he agrees (somewhat vaguely), and on the very next page, bam, they’re married.
See what I mean about the pacing in this book being weird? We get 150 pages of Peggy fooling around with Captain Andre, and then when it comes to the actual guy in question, it’s all “okay they’re married no fuss no muss.” But this is an Ann Rinaldi book, so the next several pages are going to be an info dump all about Benedict Arnold’s impending court-martial. Becca is almost completely out of the narrative, and then she only comes back when she has to leave the Shippen house and go to Peggy’s new home with the Arnolds. And then, since this strange book has been told mostly from Becca’s perspective but we need to see what Peggy and Benedict talk about when they’re alone, Becca suddenly begins listening at doors and snooping. Why? She’s been totally trustworthy up until now, the only reason this changes is for the plot to move along.
Anyway, in the space of a couple of pages, Becca convinces Benedict to turn traitor because then the British will win, with all his intelligence from working for the Americans, and they’ll be lauded and wealthy again. Benedict has apparently lost all of his brains and his balls, because he’s all “Oh, OK, sure!” and that’s that. The house is miserable, Peggy gets pregnant, Becca learns her stepfather is a double agent spy, and Benedict starts having all kinds of people come over to the house in all kinds of mysterious errands.
They send Becca on an errand to a china dealer, who is secretly a double agent himself, and when he comes to the house she listens at the keyhole. She’s discovered, of course, and Benedict throws her out of the house and warns her that she has been “tainted” after serving in that house, and no one will believe anything she says about him or her stepfather, either. So Becca goes home to the farm only to find that her stepfather has run off and disappeared—after undoubtedly hearing that Benedict Arnold was onto him and he was in danger.
Becca eventually marries the soldier who’s taken over the farm, and her stepfather never comes back. We learn all this in the most awkward epilogue ever constructed, where Becca tells this all to her cow while milking. It’s another Rinaldi Info Dump that covers a few years of the war and what the Arnolds are up to, and maybe one-fifth about Becca’s family and what happens to them. What a weird, strange ending.
Rating: What a weird book this is. So…..C? Sure. That works. This is just strange from start to finish—it begins with the premise that Becca wants to be “finished,” but it pretty quickly abandons that premise for a straight recounting of all the ridiculous things that happen in the Shippen house, until the very end when we whip back around to that. The pacing, as I have complained, is very bizarre, and there is zero evidence at any time that Peggy and Benedict are actually interested in one another. We’re just supposed to believe that they’re violently attracted to one another because Rinaldi wrote it that way. It’s just awkward. Weird parts are shoehorned in and the story just does not seem very cohesive. I remember not really enjoying this book all that much, and it took me for-ev-er to write this review because the book is both boring and weirdly written at the same time! But on the good side—it teaches you a lot about Philadelphia during the Revolution? It doesn’t even do that all that well. What’s good about it, then? Well, apart from some editing errors, it is not the worst book ever written and it’s just boring as hell.