Tuesday, May 13, 2014

399 (2014 #27). The Spymistress

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is the third in Jennifer Chiaverini's historical fiction / biographical novels featuring lesser-known women of the Civil War era.  This time it's Elizabeth Van Lew, who was apparently the leader of a ring of Union spies in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, during the war.  The 43-year-old spinster Van Lew and her widowed mother were against slavery and secession.  Van Lew got her start as a spy by tending to Union soldiers held prisoner, bringing them bread and books - and smuggling out messages.  By 1864, she - and others in her network - was helping prisoners escape, and sending dispatches to Union generals written in code in an "invisible ink" that darkened with mild acid and heat.

Chiaverini chooses to call her "Lizzie" in the novel, perhaps to clearly distinguish her from her mother and niece, both called Eliza.  Unfortunately, despite her exciting adventures, I found Lizzie to be a rather flat character, at least the way Chiaverini portrays her.  More interesting to me was her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser (Mary Jane in the book, perhaps to avoid even more confusion in names).  Bowser agreed to pretend to be a slave again and serve in the household of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, in order to spy on him.

I did learn about two historical figures I knew nothing about, and am inspired to read more about them. Chiaverini lists her sources in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, and they include Van Lew's published Civil War diaries.  I'll also be reading Chiaverini's next book set in this era, about Ulysses Grant's wife Julia.  I liked this book more than Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Rival, but not as much as her Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.

A final comment: too many book covers for historical fiction with lead female characters look alike nowadays; the full-length image of a woman in period dress with only the lower half of her face (often in profile) visible.  It's getting boring.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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