Book Review: The Spymistress – by Jennifer Chiaverini

Hardcover, 355 pages
Published October 1st 2013 by Dutton Adult

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.

I usually enjoy historical fiction but I was a little hesitant to read this book, as I’m not very knowledgeable about the American Civil War.  However, the book’s caption intrigued me and I was really looking forward to finding a story about a strong female character living in very difficult circumstances.

I was not disappointed with Ms. Chiaverini’s account of Miss Elizabeth (Lizzie) Van Lew.  She is portrayed as a clever and charming woman who was relentless in her support for the Union cause when her beloved Virginia secedes from the United States.

Soon after secession, Lizzie, desperate for some way to help the Unionists without betraying her true allegiances to her Confederate neighbours in Richmond, Virginia, manages to ingratiate herself with Confederate generals responsible for the local prison where Union soldiers are housed after the start of the war.  She gains access to the Union prisoners under the guise of a Christian charity mission, and soon finds herself smuggling secret messages out of the prison for some of the imprisoned officers.

Over the course of the war, this first foray into spying leads her to develop an intricate and far-reaching network of spies, facilitators and accomplices that reaches into the home of the President of the Confederacy himself.  Lizzie’s reports, smuggled into Union territory, are so important that they are passed all the way to General Ulysses S. Grant.  This is an exceptional accomplishment for a woman at a time when she was not even granted the right to vote.

For a history novice, this book does a good job of laying out the scene and the major historical events without dwelling too much on specific military battles or political jostling.  This is important as it allows the reader to just focus on the narrative.  It is a well written tale, albeit without a lot of character development; Lizzie and her compatriots are pretty much the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning.

The main story here is the development of Lizzie’s network, the revelations of how deep and far it actually reached, and how important she was to the Union cause.  Although it feels like it is building towards something throughout most of the novel, the story lacks any real crescendo other than the eventual end of the war (spoiler alert: the Unionists won).  However, as it is a historical novel it’s not like the author could really change many of the major details of Lizzie’s life while still staying true to reality.

Despite these shortcomings from a fictional perspective, the story is easy to read and is entertaining, and it provides a very good glimpse into the harrowing consequences of civil war and life in Richmond after secession.  And Lizzie Van Lew is an admirable female protagonist; this book made me want to read more about her real life.

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