Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 9, 2013

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.

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Elizabeth Van Lew
Civil War era lit is not easy for me to read. I think it a wonderful period with a wealth of compelling material, but I find a lot of writers get caught up in the morality of the conflict and end up releasing very simplistic and one-sided accounts that glorify the virtuous north against the villainous, bigoted and degenerate south. I get the appeal of the good vs. evil allegory, but it's been done a million times and at the end of the day, I find it banal and cliché. 

Take the concept of self-emancipation expressed in Daniel Woodrell's Woe to Live On, the loss of innocence explored in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain or the transformation of southern culture illustrated in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. These are sort of deeper themes I find appealing and I don't think Jennifer Chiaverini pushed that envelope with The Spymistress.

Lizzie is so blinded with her own self-righteousness that she never recognizes she wears death's blackened shroud, never bears the weight of the scythe she wields against her southern brethren and never shoulders an ounce of responsibility for the tragic fate of those who died by the information she spirited north. Perhaps I am alone in this, but it is hard to consider her compassionate when she seems so devoid of empathy for those who suffered the repercussions of her actions.

Maybe deep characterization isn't Chiaverini's thing. I haven't read her before so I'm not in a position to say one way or the other, but when I realized I wasn't going to find what I was looking for in Lizzie, I started looking at the bigger picture and the obstacles faced by those involved in the espionage ring, but unfortunately, I didn't find what I was looking for there either. 

The distinct lack of tension bothered me. There is an implied element of danger, but I never felt as if Lizzie and her co-conspirators were facing a tangible threat and that really undermined the magnitude of what they were doing. Maybe I'd have been more convinced if there'd been more detail about their efforts or the actual information they were passing but as is, I spent my reading comfortable in the knowledge everyone would be okay in the end. 

War is not simple, romantic or politically correct, but Jennifer Chiaverini's The Spymistress is all of the above. I give Chiaverini points for shedding light on a story with which I was not familiar, but I think she played it safe and that the piece could have been a lot stronger if she'd dug a little deeper and offered up something more complex than what I saw here. 

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No man wanted to seem a coward, and no woman wanted to seem indifferent, which made the Van Lews’ absence from sewing bees and dress parades all the more conspicuous. Lizzie could not mistake the sidelong glances and whispers that followed her whenever she strolled around Church Hill.
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