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Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War - Karen Abbott Wow: I loved this, and I am so over reading about the American Civil War. But, really, what could be better than a detailed and exciting nonfiction account of four women who played key roles in the war? This book combines the best of both worlds: the perspective and historical background of nonfiction with the narrative suspense of fiction, all while relating the accounts of four larger-than-life figures I'd never heard of. I call that a win.

The book, consisting of 430 pages in hardcover not counting endnotes and references, is organized chronologically, alternating among the stories of four women. Belle Boyd was a daring teenager, hungry for adventure and renown, who brazened her way into Union camps for information and once ran across a battlefield with a message for Stonewall Jackson. Emma Edmonds, disguised as a man, enlisted as a Union soldier, serving as a medic, mail carrier and part-time spy, a role in which she occasionally "disguised" herself as a woman. Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a Washington socialite who ran a spy ring on behalf of the Confederacy. And Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond spied for the Union, orchestrating the escapes of Union prisoners and even placing an undercover "slave," Mary Jane Bowser, in Jefferson Davis's home. (I wish the book had included Mary Jane's story, too; presumably there was not enough written about her to sustain a detailed nonfiction narrative, but someone should take note and write a novel!)

In many ways, this book reads like a novel: it is dramatic and suspenseful and brings scenes from the Civil War to life, while focusing on the individual women's experiences rather than bogging down in details of battles or economics. A few strategically placed chapters discuss the movements of armies and generals, but these exist only to supplement and explain the women's stories. Abbott makes great use of her research, and I was fascinated and astonished by much of it, as I am with the best nonfiction: much of this material I would not have believed in a novel. Belle Boyd wandered around Union camps stealing weapons for the Confederacy and hiding them in her skirt? Emma Edmonds infiltrated Confederate camps disguised as a male slave, and no one figured her out? Rose Greenhow's defense to charges of spying was "I'm a woman. I hear things, I tell my friends. Your men should know better than to talk to me" - and it worked? There is a tendency to imagine people in the past as much more stiff and regimented than ourselves, so to see the America of 150 years ago as a chaotic place full of people who made mistakes, where a bit of daring combined with poor communication systems could get an undercover agent a long way, was a revelation for me.

In her portrayals of the four women, I found Abbott evenhanded; some were more difficult than others, but their personalities come through in the writing, and it's easy to sympathize with their stories even when their opinions are abhorrent to the modern reader. All four of the women profiled here were fascinating, complex individuals, who found great purpose in their war work - their later lives seem sad and anticlimactic by comparison, and in that respect the epilogue is not a cheerful one, though one can't help but be impressed by the strength and courage they display, each in her own way. There is a high level of historical detail, and Abbott has a strong journalistic style, which carries the reader easily through the story.

I am not rounding up to 5 stars for two reasons. One, the book loses a bit of steam in the second half, though it isn't Abbott's fault that three of her protagonists have been neutralized by this point. Two, though she has plenty of other sources, the book does rely heavily on the women's own memoirs and journals, though they are noted in some places to be unreliable. I appreciate Abbott's extensive background research and her including nearly 60 pages of endnotes and references, but inevitably, many of the personal stories have no other source than the memoirs themselves.

But those minor quibbles don't prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending this book, which is both amazing fun and an excellent history lesson. I would recommend this to those who aren't sure they'd enjoy nonfiction or books about the Civil War, as well as anyone who loves books about unique historical women. I will be watching for more from this author!