Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 384 pages
Date Released: October 1, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
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.
This is a quiet kind of story. While the U.S. Civil War that is the reason for the book contains myriad stories of blood, gore, guts and warfare, the story of Elizabeth Van Lew is about a much quieter kind of courage, and makes for a quiet book.
What do I mean by that? Elizabeth Van Lew was a real person, a woman who was born and raised in Richmond Virginia, and continued to live there throughout the Civil War, in spite of being a strong Union sympathizer caught in the capital of the Confederacy.
Lizzie decided that her duty as a loyal citizen of the United States, the entire United States and not just the South, was to provide as much aid and comfort as she could to Union prisoners of war, up to and including running a sort of underground railroad to help them escape across Union lines.
She also created an extremely effective spy ring, and found ways to get messages to Union generals. Lizzy knew her stuff, she had embedded a servant into the “Gray House” to spy on Jefferson Davis, and had inserted a Union sympathizer guard into the infamous Libby House prison.
Lizzie was effective. But while she was the spy ringleader, most of what kept me reading was her accounts of the Confederate strategy and her reports of battle-readiness (or the lack thereof) of the Confederate troops and the defenders of Richmond.
Because she is most effective as a reporter, we don’t see her act. While she does feel threatened, she doesn’t face much personal danger. Her co-conspirators are arrested, but she isn’t touched.
We also don’t see as much of her interior life as necessary to make her a sympathetic character. We don’t see her displaying her feelings, even in private, beyond her jubilation at Union victories and her dismay at Confederate winnings. She’s so busy trying to make sure that she manages everything and everyone she can, that we don’t get to know her as much as readers might want.
But the life of the city that she reports on is fascinating. We see the war from the other side, not just the Confederate propaganda to its own citizens but also the way that things were on the ground. The hunger, the desperation, the effect of the continuing war on regular citizens.
The battles are often far away, but the effects are felt at home. And then, Richmond falls and Lizzy is finally recognized for her true accomplishments.
Escape Rating C+: It took me about 100 pages to get into the book, but it got more interesting as the war progressed, even when the battles are far from Richmond. Lizzie’s eyes and ears in the Gray House gave her a view of what was really happening, as opposed to what was being reported in the press.
Because she so often worked from the shadows, we don’t see enough of her in action. While this is historically accurate, it also takes some drama away from the fiction.
As a character, Lizzie is a bit dry, but the events that she reports on keep the reader pushing on, even though we know the result. The last quarter of the book, when the Union troops are closing in and Lizzie and her friends aren’t sure whether to celebrate or lock themselves in, do an excellent job of portraying a city on the edge of collapse.
Jennifer is giving away a paperback copy of The Spymistress to one lucky (U.S.) commenter.
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