The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini: A TLC Book Tour

May 15, 2014 Civil War, Historical Fiction 29

Greetings Bookworms!

I don’t know what is is about the American Civil War, but I cannot get enough historical fiction based on the time period. From Gone with the Wind to North and South, I am compelled to read about this fascinating era. When the lovely crew at TLC Book Tours sent me a synopsis of  The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini, I couldn’t resist. *I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I’m from Illinois and this is Honest Abe’s regime we’re talking about: it would be extremely bad form for me to lie. *

TLC SpymistressElizabeth Van Lew was born into a prominent slave-holding family in Richmond, Virginia. Having been raised by a socially progressive mother and educated in the North, Lizzie held some unusual sentiments for a woman of her stature in Richmond at the time. Specifically, Elizabeth Van Lew was of the opinion that slavery was a big steaming pile o’ horse manure. After her father’s death, Lizzie and her mother freed as many of their slaves as they could, and when prevented from doing so by her father’s will, they unofficially freed their slaves by allowing them to live wherever they liked in the city and paid them for their labor.

When the Civil War broke out, the Van Lew family’s stance on slavery was not popular. Even less popular was their suspected sympathy for the Union. Desperate to help the Union cause, Lizzie begins her quest by attempting to offer aid and comfort to the Union prisoners living in deplorable conditions. Her dogged determination serves her well as she moves from bringing food to injured soldiers to smuggling information to the Union from behind enemy lines. Though she takes the utmost care to keep her activities a secret, Lizzie’s activities place her in an extremely dangerous position.

Y’all, this book was great! Elizabeth Van Lew was a REAL woman in Richmond (only the capitol of the Confederacy where she might accidentally run into Jefferson Davis) who led a frigging spy ring for the Union. She was rumored to have Unionist leanings, but without any proof, she was written off as just another eccentric, wealthy spinster. THAT is what you get for underestimating a lady with chutzpah, Confederacy! (Yes, I just smack talked a government that ceased to exist 150 years ago. I’m nothing if not timely.)

I’ve read a bit about the Civil War, and being a lady of the North, I’ve always found the Southern perspective interesting. I think the entire modern-day universe would agree that slavery is/was THE WORST THING EVER, so it fascinates me the way Southern society was able to rationalize it. Judging people outside the context of their time is an easy trap to fall into while reading historical fiction, particularly when it comes to such a horrifying institution. That said, when your way of life is being threatened, it’s natural to get defensive. Before tackling The Spymistress I felt like a had a pretty good grasp the Southern female response to the war. I simply hadn’t considered that there would be an element of Southern society loyal to the Union, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever since I can name half a dozen other major wars and their resistance movements. I think I might be guilty of some Northern snobbery and sore winner’s syndrome…

In any case, I found The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini to be an enlightening and entertaining read. I would recommend it to any historical fiction buff, but especially to those with a fondness for Civil War novels.

Talk to me, Bookworms. Have you ever found yourself judging a historical figure or character’s actions by modern standards? 

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

29 Responses to “The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini: A TLC Book Tour”

    • Words For Worms

      Shannon, I was thinking of you the WHOLE TIME. Particularly because this was set in Church Hill and I know you live in a historic home (though I’m not at all sure of where in Richmond anything actually is.) Still, I was like “SHANNON MIGHT BE LIZZIE’S NEIGHBOR!”

  1. Ashley F

    Love Civil War themed books. On a side note, saw 12 Years a Slave over the weekend. Kinda want to read the book now.

    You have to read the John Jakes, Kent Family Chronicles. Sooo good.

  2. Jennine G.

    This sounds good! I have wondered if I was born back then, what would I have believed? I mean, my ancestors fought as far back as the American Revolution, as well as for the Union in the Civil War. That many greats of a grandfather had a leg amputated and my cousin tracked it down – it was on display in a museum in the South! Lol, crazy. But still, people have to make their own choices, and so I wonder where I’d end up in the whole deal based on the culture of the time. Even if I was sympathetic to the slaves, would I have sat by or would I have helped? Sorry, rambling. You hit a topic I’ve actually thought about!

    • Words For Worms

      It’s a good thing to take you down the rabbit hole… I mean, I’d like to THINK I’d have been an abolitionist or whatever, but I’m such a rule follower by nature, I’m not sure I’d have had it in me to be rebellious, even for the greater good. A fact which shames me, really. I’m glad I live now!

  3. AMB (Koiviolet)

    The Spy Mistress sounds great! I’m from the north and my husband is from the deep south. It’s always been interesting for me to hear how his social studies classes in middle school and high school differed from mine in how they talked about the Civil War (this was the 1990s–it might be different now).

    • Jenny @ Reading the End

      Hahaha, when I lived in New York, people used to ask me (jokingly? not jokingly? I couldn’t totally tell) whether my teachers had referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. As far as I can tell, my history classes in South Louisiana were pretty much the same as you’d get everywhere — we learned that the war happened because of slavery (and some other complicated issues but mainly slavery), the South was in the wrong because it was on the side of slavery, and righteousness triumphed when the Union won.

      • Words For Worms

        LOL, you know, they probably weren’t joking. Rumors about what goes on in the deep South run rampant in the North, even now. I’m sure things have normalized at this point, but I remember hearing that when Margaret Mitchell would listen to her family talk about the war, she didn’t realize the South hadn’t won until she was older. Crazy!

    • Words For Worms

      Fascinating! Sometimes the South seems so foreign to me, it must be enlightening to have married someone from the other side of the Mason/Dixon.

  4. Jenny @ Reading the End

    I’ve often judged historical figures by present-day standards, even though I know that I should not (and that Alice of Reading Rambo would fuss at me for doing it :p). On the other hand, when authors of historical fiction show sympathetic characters holding beliefs that are appalling by present-day standards, it always impresses me that they’re making that choice. Because that is how most of the people at that time would have felt!

    • Words For Worms

      Alice writes THE BEST POSTS on the subject, truly. Sometimes I wonder how ridiculous the things I do now will be viewed by future generations…

  5. Katie @ Doing Dewey

    I definitely judge historical figures by our standards! All the time! I’m not sure I even think that’s a bad thing, honestly. I realize we should probably not think someone is a bad person just for following the belief system everyone around them follows, but I’m sure there were some people in most time periods who fought prejudiced ideas and I do prefer books where they’re the characters we’re supposed to sympathize with.

    • Words For Worms

      I don’t know, I think that if you take people’s actions out of their historical context, they seem less meaningful. Take Lizzie for example. If you just thought “well, wouldn’t EVERYONE have spied for the Union” then you’d miss out on just how much danger she put herself in and how extraordinary she truly was. It takes a lot of guts to go against the grain. That said, it certainly is more fun to root for the protagonist if they’re in line with modern sensibilities.

  6. Sarah Says Read

    I think I have a hard time reading books glorifying the South during that time, because of the whole slavery thing. I just… find it uncomfortable. I’m a big wuss, apparently. I REALLY will make myself read Gone With the Wind one of these days, I swear…

    On a side note, I heard on the Book Riot podcast that a white dude author has been contracted to write a book that’s basically Gone With the Wind told from the POV of Mammy… and clearly I have thoughts and concerns about this… which I won’t go into, except I basically agree with everything Rebecca and Jeff on the podcast said about it.

  7. Alison's Wonderland Recipes

    This sounds great! I may have to pick it up next time I’m in a bookstore. I just got back from the Civil War Days living history event at Naper Settlement in Naperville, so I’ve definitely got that era on the brain! 🙂

  8. Brittny

    Did you ever read In My Father’s House by Ann Rinaldi? It’s YA or possibly now considered middle grade… Any way it was a favorite for many years, and was one of the first books that really started my historical fiction and civil war love. 🙂


  9. Emily

    I moved to SC in 9th grade and as a transplant, let me tell you, it blows my mind to this day how many southerners feel about the Civil War. You think it’s hard to understand how people could rationalize slavery during the war? Try having a rational conversation with a person who, to this day, believes the “south will rise again” and who flies their Confederate flag instead of the American one. They could not be more proud of the role the South had in the war (but very few actually acknowledge that they lost…) and while I understand being proud of your history, (and think it is important) but it scares me how many people are proud of the horrible parts of their history. It’s hard to understand and I’ve learned to just ignore them and I definitely don’t remind them who won the war. That makes them angry rednecks. That being said, there are many southerners who are well educated and recognize the roles of both the North and the South in the war and are happy that slavery is no longer acceptable in the good ole’ USofA!

    On a different note, I had never thought about any southerners being loyal to the Union either so I might have to pick up this book and check it out!

    • Words For Worms

      If it makes you feel any better, we have plenty of bigots in the North, particularly in some of the more rural areas… Or maybe it’s just a Central Illinois thing? I dunno, we have a pretty shameful hate group history in my current neck of the woods. Really though. The South will rise again? And do what exactly? Re-institute slavery? Ridiculous.

  10. Melinda

    I almost started Gone with the Wind yesterday – as it was on my kindle, but got put off by the length of the novel.

Talk to me, Bookworms!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.