First line: "In the town of Martinsburg on the lower tip of the Valley, a seventeen-year-old rebel named Belle Boyd sat by the windows of her wood-frame home, waiting for the war to come to her."
When I visited the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. last year, I first came across the idea of female spies in the Civil War. I suppose if I had thought more on the subject, I would have seen it as natural--"of course women would have functioned as spies." But since the thought had never crossed my mind, it fascinated me to read about it in the museum. So, when I heard about Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy--this true story female spies in the Civil War, I was excited to check it out.
Karen Abbott looks at four women: Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow--both rebel spies--Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew--Union spies.
Emma began living under the disguise of a man before the war as a way to escape her father. So once the war started, she enlisted. It was her small stature that led to her recruitment as a spy.
Elizabeth Van Lew was a Southern abolitionist. She was able to make use of her money and place in society to establish a significant spy ring in the Richmond area.
Belle and Rose both used their feminine charms to benefit their espionage efforts. Rose's location near the Union capital enabled her to wield her talents on politicians and high-ranking officers, gleaning important information to pass along. Alan Pinkerton decided Rose was so much of a threat, he had her and her young daughter imprisoned.
What I found most surprising in my reactions to this book was how I perceived each of the women. The two women supporting the Confederate efforts seduced men for their information. They were forceful and blunt, with seemingly no compassion for the enemy. And I found myself disliking them, hoping they would be caught and stopped.
Whereas the two women supporting the Union were gentle and polite. Where Belle shoots a Union soldier in her home, Emma nurses a Rebel soldier as he dies. Before Emma was a spy, she worked as a nurse, tending to the wounded. Elizabeth arranged to visit the Confederate prisons and tend to the Union prisoners. There was a visible kindness in both their characters and I was rooting for them.
That difference made me question my biases toward women even today. But I also had to wonder if, subconsciously, who the women were fighting for also influenced that. Would I have felt more tolerant of Rose if she was using her feminine wiles for the Union? A psychologist might have fun analyzing that.
But aside from my quirky reactions, the perspective of the war and correlating information that comes out as Abbott tells the stories of these four women is intriguing and a bit awe-inspiring. I was surprised at the number of women who successfully disguised themselves as men and fought in the war. As Abbott lays out why they were able to do this without discovery, it made me wonder if it would then be harder or easier now to do something similar. Of course women can already serve in our armed forces, but would today's technologies hinder or help if someone was replicating this deceit?
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy doesn't exactly read like a novel since the four women are not connected to each other, but readers will still find themselves caught up in the lives of these fascinating female spies all the same. The atmosphere of the war envelopes the reader and the photographs throughout the book enhance the feeling of being in the nineteenth century and knowing the big players in the game.
Whether you're interested in spies, American history, war history or the Civil War specifically, you'll find a lot to engage with in this book. But anyone who has a fascination with the evolution of women's roles in America will be especially intrigued by Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. It's a hefty read at over 500 pages, but the pages will go by quickly because of the suspense connected to these women and their actions in one of the most important events of our nation's history.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is available in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0062092892) from Harper. There is also an unabridged audio (ISBN: 978-1483005126), narrated by Karen White, from HarperAudio and Blackstone Audio.
My review today is a part of the TLC Book Tours blog tour. You can check out what other readers had to say about Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by visiting the tour site at TLC.