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Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Spymistress

The Spymistress

Review of The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

Overview from Born to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.

Van Lew’s skills in gathering military intelligence were unparalleled. She helped to construct the Richmond Underground and orchestrated escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison under the guise of humanitarian aid. Her spy ring’s reach was vast, from clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments to the very home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.

My Review:

This week’s story is actually based on a true story according to information found inside the book. The protagonist is one Elizabeth Van Lew, an erstwhile Union sympathizer living in Richmond as the state of Virginia sides with the Confederacy and makes Richmond its capital.

Cut off from the country that she loves Lizzie is determined to do what she can to help. It is not long before she gets her chance to prove her loyalty. A group of Union prisoners, some of them civilians, captured during battle are kept in the most deplorable conditions. Lizzie used flattery and home-cooked food to worm her way into the Confederate prison guard’s confidence so that she can tend to their needs at her own expense.

She uses that opportunity to smuggle out messages from the men to their Union counterparts north of the Mason Dixon line. As her usefulness to the Union grows, so does the danger to herself and her family. She must find a way to appear to be in favor of the Confederacy in order to avoid jeopardizing her undercover activities. After all, her life, as well as her mother’s, could be on the line at any moment.

Our heroine is one of my favorite things about this book. She is kind and circumspect as well as courageous. I can’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly find yourself ostensibly living in a new country without having the chance to leave peacefully and join up with the country that you really consider to be your own. Yet Lizzie handles it with grace even when she is threatened by some Confederates who don’t like her politics or her money.

The story of how she not only survives the war but manages also to secretly help the U.S. government is amazing. By the time the Union troops arrive in Richmond, she is recognized as the true hero that she is and is even given a special appointment by the President Grant.

I can’t name anything that I didn’t really like about this story. There was not any bad language, or a lot of sex and only mild war violence. And it was truly a captivating story. I suppose the only reason a potential reader might not like it was if he or she didn’t like Civil War stories or he or she prefers the type of stories that I mentioned earlier.

Have you read this book or any other Jennifer Chiaverini’s books? What did you think?

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