A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.
Publisher: Penguin Group USA
Price: $26.95 Hardcover list price
$10.99 Digital Edition
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There are a lot of books out there about the American Civil War, both Historical Fiction novels and Non-fiction histories. Unlike many of the civil war books out there, which tell grand, sweeping stories of famous battles, The Spymistress, established author Jennifer Chiaverini's new Historical Fiction novel focuses on a much smaller, but just as important, story. The book tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a staunch Unionist, who just happens to live behind the Confederate lines in Virginia. She also happens to become one of the most successful Union spies as well as running a vast spy network that encompassed people from all races and genders.
There are two things about this book that allows it to stand up there with the "big boys" and hold its own with the stories of Micheal and Jeff Shaara, John Jakes, Ralph Peters, and Geraldine Brooks. First, it focuses on a story that is alluded to, but not often the focus of other civil war books, that of the people working behind the scenes. Secondly, the book is told from a female point of view, with a female protagonist, which is not common in the stories about the battles. The fact that the woman in question, as well as her many associates, are true historical characters only makes the story that much more compelling. In fact, this is not just a story about Elizabeth Van Lew, but more a story about the many people caught behind Confederate lines that were willing to sacrifice all to stay true to the Union.
Before I read The Spymistress, I was only familiar with the work of Jennifer Chiaverini through her Elm Creek Quilts series of books. As entertaining as those books are, I can honestly say that I am more than thrilled that she has turned her hand to my favorite genre, Historical Fiction. The same vivid writing style and focus on characters that I am used to from her is also highlighted in this novel, but with it I got an additional focus on a historical period that is filled with stories to be told. Both the women in the book, Lizzie, Mary Jane Bowser, Eliza Van Lew, and Mary Carter West, as well as their male counterparts, are all vivid characters whose personalities and traits really shine in this book. In addition, Ms. Chiaverini's detailed and descriptive writing style allowed me to become entranced with the story being told, becoming thoroughly involved in the activities, places, and events that she described.
I have to admit, before I read this book, I had not really paid much attention to the idea of spying during the Civil War, nor had I even heard of Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary Jane Bowser, or any of the other characters in the book. I will forever be grateful to Ms. Chiaverini for introducing me to them and their stories. After reading this book, I am excited to read her other Historical Fiction book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which has been on my reading list for a while. In addition, I hope that she continues to write Historical Fiction books, especially those which tell stories that are not often covered. She has also ignited in me a desire to read more books about the characters in this book in particular, and spying during the Civil War in general, as well as reading more about the lives of the women behind the men of this time period.