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. *
Elizabeth 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?
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