Normally, when I read about history, it is of the fictional sort. I have already treated you all to a review of the books of Kate Quinn, one of my favorite current writers (http://www.theupwindflick.com/2013/09/author-of-week-kate-quinn.html). I can’t recommend her work highly enough, but I recently took what was, for me, a bit of a departure and read about something that actually happened.
Don’t get me wrong, I love history, but I am generally accustomed to learning about it either in a class setting or from a Wikipedia page. I rarely sit down and read an entire nonfiction book. My father would bemoan this inclination—he is a true history devotee, and a lover of nonfiction. What turns me off in a nonfiction setting is the lack of characters. In most books, however thrilling the plot, I find it to be secondary. If a character is unrealistic, or uninteresting, or perpetually unsympathetic, then there is nothing tying me to a book, and I generally end up guiltily tossing it aside halfway through.
Not this time though. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, by Karen Abbott, kept me reading with baited breathe all the way through. Abbott’s book is nonfiction written as if it were fiction. This is not a textbook; this is a novel with the minds of the characters laid open through what must have been exhausting research. Four remarkable characters, all four interesting, sympathetic (in some ways) and realistic. Of course they were realistic. They were real.
Liar Temptress Soldier Spy gives the accounts of four women who fought in the Civil War, two for the Union and two for the Confederacy. When I say fought, I do not mean that they were all enlisted as soldiers, though one was. I meant that they each struggled every day of the war, facing constant threats from both their enemies and their neighbors, because when you are a woman inhabiting what was considered a man’s role, the greatest threat may come from those for whom you fight.
Belle Boyd was a privileged southern slave-owner’s daughter, who shot a Union soldier who made the mistake of threatening her mother. Her audacity and love of attention would carry her through the rest of the war and the rest of her life; her constant attempts to top her last extravaganza were simultaneously admirable, exasperating, and pitiful. Emma Edmonds escaped an abusive father and pursued religious convictions by disguising herself as a man and fighting for the Union army. During the war, she spied behind enemy lines, disguising herself as a woman, and leading many to wonder how this man was so very convincing in the masquerade of the fairer sex. Rose O’Neale Greenhow was in some ways the strongest of the women and was certainly the hardest for me to stomach. A fervent lover of the Confederacy and all that it stood for, she seduced her way into wartime intelligence, which she passed along through a spy ring she ran largely on her own, until she was finally imprisoned and exiled with her young daughter. She was hard as flint, and just as inflexible, to her downfall. Elizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond abolitionist who spent the war hiding Northern POWs in her attic to later be smuggled across the lines. She too ran a spy ring, passing information on to General Grant that sped the defeat of the south. She earned Grant’s everlasting gratitude, and her neighbors’ everlasting enmity. In many ways, her story is the true tragedy of the book.
Stories have a different effect when you know they are real. Some books have what I call the hangover effect; they cling to you long after you put them down. This one in particular has been insidious. I find myself thinking about these four women, the sacrifices they made, and lives they truly chose to lead, in a time where most women had every choice snatched from their hands. They are eternal now, but in their own time, these choices cost them dearly.
Read this. It is remarkable.