Review: The Spymistress

ImageTitle: The Spymistress

Author: Jennifer Chiaverini

Rating: ★★1/2

Provided Synopsis: Born to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.

Van Lew’s skills in gathering military intelligence were unparalleled. She helped to construct the Richmond Underground and orchestrated escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison under the guise of humanitarian aid. Her spy ring’s reach was vast, from clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments to the very home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.

Review: At times The Spymistress can be a very enjoyable book. It depicts the story of Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, who collected information to aid the Union during the Civil War. As a woman living in Confederate Virginia, Elizabeth’s loyalties to the Union and abolitionist ideals put her within grave danger, yet she never backs down from what she considers to be her duty. She provided comforts to Union prisoners of war and sometimes helped them escape; she depleted her fortune to put towards the war effort; she created a spy network that passed on valuable information of what was occurring in Richmond — all in all, she is a hero that is forgotten about in the history books we read at school, which is why many will take an interest in her story.

The detriment to the book, however, is that it is so heavy on the historical. By this I mean that you are reading about battle after battle, along with how the result of each battle corresponds to the atmosphere in Richmond. Elizabeth, as a character in this story, is not one that I would ever consider to progress; she starts off willing to aid the Union and she never changes from that. There is no character growth here; I cannot even say that I found many of the minor characters to be of much interest. The book came to the point where it felt as if I were reading a densely written history book. I grew tired of reading pages detailing battles. At the end I had to resort to skimming since I already knew the end result of the war and therefore became only curious to see what would become of a woman who had sacrificed so much once the war was over.

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