“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” – Karen Abbott

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail:
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

                -Rudyard Kipling, “The Female of the Species”

With Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott, I’m trying something new: reviewing a second title by an author I’ve already written about. When choosing books for this blog, I try very hard to cover as wide a range as possible. In this particular instance, however, I just couldn’t help myself. I absolutely loved American Rose, Abbott’s 2010 biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, which I shared with you in May of last year. In my defense, this new book isn’t even out yet (we’re launching it on September 3rd) and I absolutely gobbled down the advanced reader sent to us by her publisher; if I couldn’t even wait the few months till pub date to read it, there’s simply no way I could resist reviewing it immediately.

What Abbott presents to us is the story of four very different women (two on each side of the American Civil War), all of whom chafed at the restrictions that society imposed upon them, and who were determined to change the course of the conflict in any way they could. As she makes very clear in the introduction, there was a sharp contrast between all the things women couldn’t do during the war (vote, run for office, fight, have any official influence on politics whatsoever), and all of the extraordinary things they actually did – but I won’t ruin the book by spelling all of the latter out here. For all that her subjects were so severely limited by the lack of a Y chromosome, they managed to make said limits work for them, to use their gender not only as a tool, but as a weapon, a shield, and camouflage, as the occasion called for each in turn, or even all at the same time.

There’s Belle Boyd, described as “the fastest girl in Virginia (or anywhere else for that matter)”, a staunch Confederate, and the epitome of a rebellious teenager. She begins her exploits by shooting a Union soldier who was menacing her mother … and she only grows more flamboyant and outrageous from there, even running through a hail of bullets to deliver a message to Stonewall Jackson in the middle of a battle. Acting on what she believes to be a divine calling, Emma Thompson, enlists in the Union army under the alias of Frank, and serves in turn as a medic, courier and military scout – but she had already been living as a man for two years before the war even began! At several points in her spying career for the army, she is a woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman; the various levels of her identity and subterfuge, how she juggles who she is with who she is pretending to be, are enough to make your head spin, and yet somehow she pulls it off.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew are spiders, operating in the hearts of Washington and Richmond respectively, heading up increasingly complex, clever, and effective spy networks under the very noses of the authorities – even though their sympathies were well known to those in charge. Despite both women sitting in the middle of delicate and far-flung webs of information and treachery, and with behavior raising more than a few eyebrows even before the war, in other respects, they could not be more different. Rose was a widowed Washington socialite with a scandalous reputation, numerous lovers, an outrageous temper, and more than a touch of Mata Hari to her espionage work; she relied on her friendships with men in power to obtain the information that she passed on the Confederacy, or in her diplomatic work in Europe. In contrast, Elizabeth was a wealthy, reclusive, socially impeccable spinster from a family looked at slightly askance for its abolitionist leanings, who hid her doings behind nerves of steel and an flawless facade of gentility.

It is made very clear throughout that these women did not (and could not) operate in a vacuum, and so they are surrounded by huge, wonderful, amazingly described supporting casts. In particular, there is one individual inextricably entwined with the story of Elizabeth Van Lew: Mary Jane Bowers, a former slave that Van Lew managed to insert into the household of Jefferson and Varina Davis as a servant. An educated, literate servant with an eidetic memory, who in the course of cleaning Jefferson Davis’ study managed to examine every piece of paper that crossed the president’s desk. One tiny link in the much larger chain of Elizabeth’s spy network, one small piece of the whole, but an absolutely crucial one.

Just as she did with burlesque in American Rose, even as Abbott tells the story of several extraordinary women, she also brings the world around them to life with delicious tidbits: tantalizing snippets that somehow manage to capture the entirety of a specific time and place, encapsulating despite their brevity. It’s the little things that bring the war to life: blackberries as a cure for diarrhea, boots and shoes made on a straight last, “neither right nor left, and must be broken into one or the other”. In addition, she dots the narrative with mini-cliffhangers, switching from one storyline to another at crucial moments, skillfully ratcheting up and drawing out the tension. It gives an inkling of the strain under which all four women lived, never knowing what would happen next, or if today would be the day that they were caught, exposed, or captured.

Among the four, I doubt that Abbott could find a wider variety of personalities, characters and exploits if she tried, so they do an excellent job of covering all the possible roles a woman could (and frequently did) take on during the war. Which is wonderful for us, because they only tell a small part of the story, while also representing something far greater than themselves. The four she focuses on were unique, no doubt about that, but they were not unusual for their time and place, and so they must stand in for and serve as examples of the many, many other women who accomplished equally remarkable things, and yet about which we know nothing. This is an aspect of history that rarely appears in the official record, and as such is story that needs to be told, over and over again, until it becomes an integral part of the mainstream narrative.

~ Paige

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One response to ““Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” – Karen Abbott

  1. Pingback: “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah | Alabama Booksmith Blog

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