Saturday, January 24, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

I really wanted to love this book--it has all the right elements--it's a history book about the Civil War ( a lifetime interest of mine), it's about women breaking through traditional gender roles and doing interesting things, and it was dissed in a book review in the Washington Post that made me want to rally to author Karen Abbott's side.  I snatched it up as soon as my local library got a copy because I knew it would have a long waiting list.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, by Karen Abbott, is about four women who were actively engaged as military spies during the Civil War.  Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow were Southerners who spied on behalf of the South, and Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds were Northern spies.  Van Lew was a Southerner who was a Unionist, living in Richmond, and Edmonds disguised herself as a male (renaming herself Frank Thompson) and served in the Army of the Potomac until she deserted when she thought her true identity was about to be discovered.

I finished it last night and sad to say, I pretty much agree with Jonathan Yardley, the author of the WP post linked to above who complained about Abbott's flights of fancy:
If there were only one of two such passages the reader could grant Abbott poetic license and let the matter pass, but there are so many of them that the line between fact and invention is exceedingly difficult to discern.
Abbott provides an extensive index and dozens of pages of notes at the end of the book.  In fact, she actually responded to Yardley, saying:
...he overlooked the breadth of my citations as a whole, a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources, and that far exceed the guidelines set forth for narrative nonfiction by the Chicago Manual of Style.
The problem is that despite 60 pages of endnotes and 200 sources, I didn't believe a lot of what Abbott wrote.  Partly because scenes that she fictionalized were based on the memoirs of the women themselves--Belle Boyd in particular retold her stories over the years, embellishing and rewriting history as she struggled with her mental illness.  It interesting to think about, but sometimes one's own story does not make for a credible source.

Once incredulity enters into a reader's mind, it seems that the author can do nothing right.  In the end, I found the book quite shallow.  It didn't reflect a strong premise and didn't argue a point.  I learned some stuff about the four women, but it didn't change how I think about the war or broaden my understanding of the issues that divided the U.S. 150 years ago.

I did end up giving the book 3 stars on Goodreads because it actually was fun to read (all that breathless, sensational prose coupled with cliffhanger endings to chapters is fun) and it piqued my interest in finding out more about these four women, particularly Elizabeth Van Lew, who was by far my favorite of the foursome.

I really hope Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy doesn't mark a trend in historical books where research and sticking to the facts gives way to romanticizing and embellishment. If I had wanted to read a novel about these women, I would have done so.  As it is, I think Abbott would have done better to have let Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy be the novel she so clearly wanted to write.  It would have been a pretty good novel, but it wasn't a very good book of history.



  1. Oh, too bad! This was high on my list...I may still read it but I'll give it a lower priority.

  2. I really wanted to read this too, for all the same reasons you did. But I read Sarah Emma Edmonds's memoirs, & I'd much rather read these women's own words than a fictionalized version of them, however grounded in research. Thanks for your review, which confirms that I can give this one a miss.

    1. I meant to add that I bought a biography of Elizabeth Van Lew last year, actually in Richmond where she lived. It's called Southern Lady Yankee Spy, by Elizabeth Varon.

    2. I would like to read both Emma's and Elizabeth's memoirs. Belle's, not so much!

  3. The subject does sound interesting. It is too bad that this is disappointing.

    I am actually uneasy with fictionalized books that are supposed to accurately reflect real events. I think that authors would do so much better if they just called these books novels and specified that they strived for a lot of historical accuracy.

  4. Well, I guess I won't be in such a hurry to read this. How disappointing.

  5. This was history? I do see the problem. When memoirs are one of the chief sources, I suppose the author needs to be more skeptical and restrained, rather than more inventive and speculative. Perhaps it would have made a better historical novel, as you suggest.

  6. I did feel like Abbott had walked the boundary between fact and her desire to novelize these stories. I wasn't aware that there was so much that was incorrect but it did all sound sensationalized. On the plus side, it did bring to the forefront the contributions that women made to the war in various ways and had me looking for more info so that's good.