I recently finished the book The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini. Though it was the first of Ms. Chiaverini’s books that I’ve read, it will not be the last. I can’t believe how much I learned from it (it’s a novel of historical fiction) and for days now, I’ve been regaling anyone who will listen with tales of Civil War spies. Luckily, I had four Boy Scouts in a car with me on a trip to Washington, D.C., over the weekend and they were more or less a captive audience for my stories.
The Spymistress is a book about Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman who actually existed. She was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, in a slave-owning aristocratic family. She was also a spy for the North during the Civil War and this book tells the tale of how Elizabeth became a spy, how she managed to remain a spy, and how she survived the Civil War as a spy in the South. There is also a very interesting note of Ms. Van Lew’s life after the War. I was quite surprised by the events of the later years of her life.
Elizabeth Van Lew was a brave woman who embodied the ideals of equality and freedom long before they became rallying cries in the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements. Though she and her mother technically “owned” slaves, it was only because a clause in her father’s will prevented his widow and daughter from selling them. They therefore paid their slaves and treated them well and showed them the respect they deserved. She was shrewd, too, managing to convince Southern officers and prison adminstrators that her kindness and charity for northern soldiers was because of her Christian duty to them and not out of any misplaced loyalty to a bunch of Yankees. And she used her wealth and social status to her advantage, gaining access to northerners who needed her help and managing to get other Union sympathizers into positions of authority in Richmond prisons.
I liked the rising tension in the book that came from the main characters living in a house of Northern sympathizers as the Civil War progressed and as their neighbors and the citizens of Richmond became increasingly entrenched in the fight for Southern independence. The author does a great job describing the atmosphere of Richmond as it goes from elation and hope to concern to desperation and despair, and she also conveys nicely the physical appearance of Richmond during the War. As was the case with the last novel I reviewed (Anything But Civil), it is obvious that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book–not just research about Richmond, but also research about troop movements and prison conditions and Civil War heroes and villains.
I would recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and Civil War buffs.
Has anyone read any other good books lately? Share them in the comments!
Until next week,
P.S. Update from last week’s post: still no birds. But I will persevere! Also, thanks to the person-who-shall-remain-nameless who pointed out that robins are really wormatarians, not seed eaters. I should have known that.