Q&A with Tim about World Turned Upside Down

Hasn’t the Yorktown story been told? What’s new?

The story is usually told from a military history perspective and a strongly American perspective. I’ve added a British and French perspective, and have included a focus on African American history. This comes through the amazing story of James Lafayette, an enslaved man who worked as a spy for General Lafayette prior to the siege of Yorktown. He’s a fascinating and mysterious person who is unfamiliar to most people. His story is compelling and gets at the choices presented to enslaved individuals during a complex time in America’s history.

Does the book have an underlying theme?

Yes, freedom. Many of the characters are striving for freedom but it means different things to each person. For James it means personal freedom. Enslaved individuals could choose to join the British, but that did not guarantee their life would be better or that they would ultimately gain freedom. Any movement toward freedom was risky. George Washington and other patriot leaders risked life and property to pursue the freedom for a society to govern itself.

Favorite character?

Aside from James, I’d say the Marquis de Lafayette, who joined the American fight at age nineteen, leaving a wife and a young baby at home in France and defying the orders of his king. While many people recognize the name, they may not know much about this complicated and inspiring person.

Favorite story from the book?

The chapter titled, The Big Secret. In order to surprise British General Cornwallis and trap his army at Yorktown, Washington and the French general Rochambeau needed to march thousands of troops five hundred miles and keep it a secret as long as they could. Given the physical imprint a traveling army leaves on the land and the fact that British spies were everywhere, it’s just amazing the Allies managed to trick the British. They used various methods to accomplish this, including building fake bread ovens (the French loved their bread!), working on roads they would not use, and building boats they would not use.

Favorite primary source?

A letter from George Washington in New York to his dentist in Philadelphia to order dental supplies for his teeth. The British intercepted it, verified its authenticity, and then assumed Washington was not headed south toward Philadelphia. It’s just amazing that the letter still exists!

Is this book good for students?

Absolutely! It’s a fascinating story about a crucial event in America’s history. The book is filled with 60+ maps, portraits, and a variety of primary sources. Plus it includes stories of spies — what kid doesn’t like spies?