November: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Back Cover Teaser:
Karen Abbott, the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and “pioneer of sizzle history” (USA Today), tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything to become spies during the Civil War.
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.
After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.
Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.
Why we chose it:
With a soft spot for all things spy related and a deep love of history, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy seemed like a natural choice. After Lady Scarlett and Lady Hawkeye ran across an article from the Washington Post dismissing the non-fiction book as girly, we thought we would dive right in and give it the positive attention it deserves.
What we think so far:
Lady Scarlett says: I’m in love! I had to mentally prepare myself and keep my judgement at bay. Initially, it was difficult to sympathize with all four of the characters (particularly those who differed from my personal North vs. South sentiments)… but I soon convinced myself that every story must be told and came to terms with my moral dilemma. I find it just as gripping and compelling as I would a work of fiction!
Lady Hawkeye says: I’m roughly halfway through, and I’m really impressed so far! Her writing voice is easy and engaging, and the topic itself is fascinating. Although the decision to feature two women from each side of the War had to have made for challenging writing at some points, so far I think the author is doing an excellent job of offering a sympathetic (and inspiring!) look at the lives of these women as individuals, rather than as simply pawns in a greater game. I also appreciate her careful attention to showing where research ends and speculation begins without taking us out of the story completely.
Lady Foxcraft says: Halfway in, and I cannot get enough. I am intrigued with every turn of the page. Abbott has done an incredible job presenting these stories in a brilliant storytelling voice — I almost feel like I’m hearing these stories from a first-hand account. I am not only impressed with the content that Abbott has compiled for us, but I am astounded that these stories aren’t more well known. These women were incredibly brave, risking everything for the causes that they believed in. I feel that perhaps the intricate tellings of what happened during the war are still deep cuts that are healing, centuries after the battle took place. There is a lot of information about the war that is not common knowledge, information that would give great insight to both sides of the fight, and I am so appreciative to Abbott for giving us a volume that supplies hungry and curious minds with a perspective long overlooked.
Final thoughts & reviews:
Lady Scarlett says: I practically devoured Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Badass women sacrificing everything (their families, homes, lives, etc) to contribute to a cause they deem true and just? Count me in! While I do have a genuine interest in the subject matter, I read Abbott’s work with Jonathan Yardley’s review in the back of my mind. Can a woman write about female historical figures without making it seem like “at its less-than-best it seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a women’s magazine”? In short: Yes. Abbott is extremely careful to cite every quote from each of her four subjects. Somewhere, somehow, every sentence they “speak” has been recorded (whether it be via a journal, a news article, stories passed down from relatives, etc) and properly cited. In no way did I feel like I was reading an article out of Cosmopolitan or Allure. Personally, I felt this non-fiction was on par with Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. So… all you non-fiction lovers… get out there and gobble this book up!
Lady Hawkeye says: My thoughts upon finishing Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy are essentially more solidified versions of my halfway feelings. As a scholar and researcher, I am impressed with Abbott’s dedication to each woman’s truth and her careful attention to detail. I am inspired by the content of this book, certainly, but also by the skillful work of the author. The women featured in this book are brave and resilient. I have read some critical reviews of Liar, Temptress, some by those who belittle its content as too “girly” (don’t even get me started), and some by those who disagree with Abbott’s approach or would debate various historical points. I would encourage anyone who is made wary by such reviews to read the book for him- or herself. I believe the research Abbott has done speaks for itself in most cases, and her high level of expertise in her field answers for the rest. In the end, this is an engaging and enlightening read that is almost guaranteed to inspire while it informs. Good stuff.
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