I picked The Spymistress, by Jennifer Chiavernini, because the name caught my eye, but also because it was about a female spy in the civil war. Now, I’ve heard stories about women pretending to be men to fight, or tending wounded soldiers at the battlefield in the civil war, but I had never heard of a female spy.
This was an exciting concept considering the time period. So, I was completely blown away when I discovered that, although this is a fiction book, the woman it’s based off truly did exist, and she really was a spy for the union. I didn’t learn this until the end of the book where the author put in some notes about Elizabeth Van Lew and a brief synopsis of how her life ended. She lived in Richmond, Virginia, which is also the city where she based her spy ring. Her ending was sad and it made me a bit depressed, nonetheless she did some amazing things with her life.
To the book…there was a great amount of history included. Chiavernini clearly did her research and you could tell she took the time to make sure her dates, troop movements, and battle mentions were accurate. As a result, I think the story suffered a little.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it was good. Her characters were interesting and multifaceted. The parts where there was action were engaging. I especially liked her descriptions of the confederate prisons and how she put together union loyalists within the city to aid union prisoners and discover information. But, I often found myself loosing interest or hurrying ahead due to descriptions of time passing and lulls in the action. I realize that real life is like this, but I do tend to like my fiction to move a little more quickly than real life.
Overall, it was a good read. I do intend to check out another book of hers, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. I love to learn history via historical fiction, and this is a period of history I feel very much undereducated on. If the story lags here and there, that really is not a huge hurdle for me as long as the characters are interesting, the action parts are good, and the history is well researched. I really did enjoy her notes at the back about the real Ms. Van Lew.
Van Lew was posthumously inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. They say that the true scope of her endeavors has never been widely known. I appreciate Chiaverini bringing this wonderful and interesting American woman to my attention. I may even track down a nonfiction book about her.