Thursday, October 8, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Title: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Author: Karen Abbott

First line: In the town of Martinsburg on the lower tip of the Valley, a seventeen-year-old rebel named Belle Boyd sat by the windows of her wood-frame home, waiting for the war to come to her.

Review: My one word review: WOW.

This chunky non-fiction book about four women who worked undercover during the American Civil War made numerous top ten lists when it was released last year; it has a ringing endorsement from Erik Larson, among others. It reads like a novel, featuring women doing some jaw-dropping stuff, and renders the Civil War and the world of that era vibrantly.

I don't often read non-fiction -- too dry for me, and it takes me forever to finish -- but in this case, I finished reading this in about a month, and it was anything but dry.

Abbott details the adventures of four women who took a particularly active role in the Civil War: there's Belle Boyd, a teenager who decides to become a spy for the Confederacy and who does so with great panache; Emma Edmonds, a woman who disguises herself as Frank Thompson, and joins the Union army; Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a Confederate widow who ruins her reputation among the upper class in order to help her beloved Confederacy; and Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond abolitionist whose spy network includes her former slave Mary Bowser, a plant in the Jefferson Davis household.

Their stories are told chronologically, which further creates a novelistic feel to this book, and by focusing on women with such different aims and lives, plunges the reader deeply into battle, besieged cities, and jail (among other locales and challenges).

Through the lens of these four women, especially Emma Edmonds, we also learn about how the war was fought, especially by Union General George McClellan. I'm personally not keen on battlefield strategy and all that, but Abbott had me gripped -- helped, no doubt, by the drama of McClellan's choices. The gruesome reality of 19th century combat, too, was unshakably portrayed.

The most vibrant figure is Belle Boyd, the teenaged spy nicknamed the "Secesh Cleopatra"; her giant personality and firm conviction in herself bounces off the pages.

Belle could feel Eliza trembling beside her. The motion set her off and she too began shaking, their bodies meeting in quick and nearly imperceptible collisions. (p202)

If, like me, you thought how could she possibly know that?, the pages and pages of notes and resources cited attest to the wealth of sources Abbott consulted in the building of this book. It's breathtakingly detailed without being ponderous to read, and this book deserves the accolades it's gotten.

Whether you're a fan of the US Civil War or not, pick this up if you enjoy reading about women's lives, especially during conflict and war. The pluck, verve, and commitment shared by these women is inspiring, too, and their commitment toward their values forced me to reconsider my own opinions about the Civil War.

Genre: Non-Fiction (19th Century / US / American Civil War / Espionage / Combat /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (9/8/15)
Source: TLC Book Tours


  1. I didn't realize this is non-fiction - that makes it kind of tempting for me.

  2. I loved this book so much and still do, but I read an article that asked one very important question: Why not also include the slave in Jefferson Davis' house? And I've been frustrated ever since because I didn't ask that question. What a harrowing time that must have been, but we don't really get any insight into that.

    Anyway, I agree - these women were amazing. This book is great. The article just made me see our tendency to pass over women of color in books. (I'd include a link, but I cannot locate it anywhere!)

    1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Holy $*#&!!! Wow -- seriously -- why didn't I think of that either??? So mortifying -- and spot on. Makes me sit back on my heels to chew over this review. I wonder if Abbott has responded to this critique? Must research -- thanks for saying this.

    2. Hi Audra,

      Thanks so much for your very kind review! It made my day. I had so much fun researching those incredible women, and it’s a thrill to know that you enjoyed their stories.

      I wanted to address the comment about Mary Jane Bowser, the former slave who worked as a spy in Jefferson Davis’s house. Obviously, she is a major player in the book. The ONLY reason the subtitle is not “Five Women Undercover in the Civil War” is because there is not much primary source material available about Mary Jane. Unlike Elizabeth, Rose, Belle, and Emma, Mary Jane did not keep a diary or writer a memoir (oh god, how I wish she had!) and so I did not have access to her thought process and her day-to-day activities.

      I had to scape and scrounge for every scrap of information I had about Mary Jane, even tracking down a descendant of Elizabeth’s bother, John Van Lew, to hear some never-before-published stories. I included everything I knew about Mary Jane—most of which was gleaned through Elizabeth’s papers—and make it very clear that she and the other African American spies in Elizabeth’s network were instrumental to the success of the Union's espionage operation.

      Unfortunately, a lack of primary source material one of the limitations and frustrations of nonfiction, and I didn’t have the resources to tell Mary Jane’s story from her own point of view. Nevertheless, I did the best I could to bring Mary Jane and her incredible story to life.

      Thanks again,

      Karen Abbott

  3. This is my favorite kind of non-fiction to read - I'm glad to see how much you enjoyed it!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  4. Oh, your review makes me want to read this even more! I'll be on the lookout for a copy! Great review! Thanks! Glad to see Abbott addressed the comment above, too. I can appreciate her conscientious 'keeping to the facts' that she can prove.