Wednesday, November 30, 2016

REVIEW | Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Publication Year: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, History
Series: NA 
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Karen White

WHY?:  Just look at that title! How could I not read it?

SYNOPSIS: A non-fiction account of the American Civil War through the lens of four women who played surprising and dangerous roles in the war, two for the Union and two for the Confederacy.  

I don't particularly enjoy non-fictional accounts of war.  The books I've tried to read in the past have seemed to be a litany of battle strategies and names and frankly that bores me to tears.  What I am interested in is the human story and that is exactly what Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy provides.  It personalizes the war by focusing on the experiences of these four very different and remarkable women and illuminating how their stories were interwoven with the events of the war.  The women are:
  • Emma Edmonds aka Frank Thompson: Emma was a Canadian/Michigan woman who even before the war impersonated a man, Frank Thompson, as a response to an abusive father and an unwanted engagement.  When the war started, she enrolled as a Union soldier and was eventually recruited as a spy.  
  • Rose Greenhow: Rose was a Washington society matron who sympathized with the South once war broke out and ended up using her connections to become a notorious spy for the confederacy. She even ends up serving as an ambassador to England and France, on behalf of the Confederacy, once her treachery is known and she is banished from the North.
  • Belle Boyd:  Belle was a teenage girl living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia who was vain and attention seeking and this led her to become a brave and eventually famous spy for the confederacy.
  • Elizabeth Van Lew: Was a wealthy spinster lady and member of a prominent Richmond, VA family (My home town!). She was an ardent abolitionist and created an underground Union spy ring in the Capitol of the confederacy.
Emma Edmonds aka Frank Thompson

Each of these women's stories were so incredibly remarkable that it was hard at times to remember that this was non-fiction.  Emma Edmonds, who was living as a man, at one point is required to dress as a woman in order to infiltrate enemy territory so she was a woman, dressed as a man, dressed as a woman.  She manages to stay undetected as a woman for most of the war.  
Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd takes a dangerous midnight ride through enemy lines to deliver a message to confederate command and frequently outsmarts federal pickets using code words and deception.

Rose Greenhow and her daughter went to prison with her
Rose managed to evade suspicion for quite a while and when she was finally taken to jail, held her own in arguing her case with the judge and Army General trying her.

Elizabeth was probably my favorite, though her story is the least flashy.  She believed so strongly in what was right that she took incredible risks forming a wide net of contacts sympathetic to the Union cause right in the heart of the Confederacy.  She housed escaping Union prisoners in the top floor of her house but despite numerous searches she is never caught during the war.  After the war ends and it is clear where her loyalties lay, she is shunned in society and ends up dying destitute and reviled.  It's very sad.  

Abbott does a really good job balancing all of their stories and also keeping up with the events in the war, putting everything in context.  It's smart that she stays focused essentially on Virginia - all four women live and act in and around this area - and it helps the book from getting bogged down with too many stats and battles.  It's well paced and well constructed.  

I listened to the audio which was very good and I highly recommend.  Karen White did a great job giving each of the women a unique voice.

FINAL VERDICT:  Narrative non-fictions at its finest which will appeal to people who usually enjoy reading fiction about wars but not non-fiction.  4 out of 5 stars.

Other Opinions are Available: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books | New Republic*

* The New Republic article is a little bit review but is also calling out a review in The Washington Post where the reviewer called the writing in the book "akin to a women's magazine" and not in a complimentary manner.  Grrr.... Snotty, Sexist and all around craptastic.

No comments:

Post a Comment