Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Spy Mistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Spy Mistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
Published by Plume Books ISBN 978-0-14-218088-4
Trade paperback, $16, 354 pages

Last year I read Jennifer Chiaverini's historical novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and found it quite enjoyable. I like to read novels based on historical people, and getting a different perspective on Mary Todd Lincoln was fascinating.

Chiaverini's new novel The Spy Mistress is inspired by the true story of civil war espionage. Lizzie Van Lew was from a prominent Richmond Virginia family. She lived with her widowed mother Eliza and her brother John, a hardware store owner, his wife Mary and two young daughters. They were staunch patriots and disdained the institution of slavery.

When Virginia seceeded from the Union, the Van Lews were stunned. Many of their neighbors supported the Confederacy, and the Van Lews were forced to keep their Unionist views to themselves to avoid being arrested.

Richmond became the capitol of the Confederacy, and when Jefferson Davis was chosen as it's president, he moved his family (whom we met in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker) to the city. Richmond also became home to prisons housing Union soldiers captured in battle.

Lizzie decided to help the Union cause. Under the guise of providing charity in the form of food and books, Lizzie asked for permission to visit the Northern prisoners. She came under suspicion from her neighbors and the Confederate leadership for this, but it was allowed.

During her visits, she met with Union soldiers who gave her information, including the names of all the men imprisoned, to smuggle out to the North. One of the Union prisoners created a clever code, by punching letters on the pages of a book, that Lizzie quickly figured out. That impressed me a great deal.

Soon Lizzie had recruited other Union supporters, including freed blacks, to become part of the spy ring sending messages to the Union generals on the battlefield. They even placed a spy inside the Davis home who discovered troop movements and strategies that Lizzie was able to send North.

This is an intriguing look at the Civil War from another perspective, that of the Southern Union patriot. There is tension in the novel as Lizzie waited for the Union troops to retake Richmond, which takes years before succeeding. Lizzie's neighbors, as well as her sister-in-law who strongly supported the Confederacy, became more suspicious of her, and she worried that her mother may suffer for it.

Her mother Eliza is a terrific character; she supported Lizzie's efforts, but better understood the importance of appearing to be a true Confederate. Lizzie says Eliza "was the very ideal of a Southern lady- kind, gracious, polite, well spoken, pious and charitable." She was also intelligent and tough when she needed to be.

Lizzie used her feminine wiles to her advantage, winning over Confederate prison officials, like Mary Todd Lincoln's brother, with her charm and bribes of food and drink. She was underestimated by the Confederate military leaders who didn't count on Lizzie's intelligence or gumption to get what she wanted.

After reading The Spy Mistress, I want to learn more about Elizabeth Van Lew and her real adventures. This is a terrific book to give to a young woman in high school who wants to learn more about the role women Southern played in the Civil War. It's an unknown story that deserves a wider audience, and Chiaverini tells it in a way that keeps the reader turing the pages.

rating 4 of 5

My review of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Jennifer's Chiaverini's tour. The rest of the stops are here.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, April 28th: Tales of a Book Addict
Thursday, May 1st: Literally Jen
Friday, May 2nd: Kritter’s Ramblings
Monday, May 5th: Fiction State of Mind
Tuesday, May 6th: Reading Reality
Wednesday, May 7th: From the TBR Pile
Thursday, May 8th: West Metro Mommy
Friday, May 9th: Mom in Love with Fiction
Tuesday, May 13th: Passages to the Past
Wednesday, May 14th: Broken Teepee
Thursday, May 15th: Words for Worms
Friday, May 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, May 19th: Daily Mayo
Tuesday, May 20th: Bookchickdi
Wednesday, May 21st: Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, May 22nd: Must Read Faster
Friday, May 23rd: Fiction Addict
Tuesday, May 27th: The Most Happy Reader
Tuesday, May 28th:  Books a la Mode – author guest post
Thursday, May 29th: Lit and Life

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