Jennifer Chiaverini seems most highly regarded lately by the masses stemming from the success of her novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (though also the very prolific writer of the Elm Creek Quilts series). In her last novel, she wrote about a supporting woman of history that could have been almost forgotten, the slave turned dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln. It seems that with her writing, Chiavernini strives to bring out supporting female historical figures that had very important or interesting roles during the Civil War era.
Now, in The Spymistress, she writes a beautiful story that focuses on a very important person whose memory doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by all the many events of the Civil War or the famous men of the period. She tells us a story of Elizabeth Van Lew, who living in Virginia at the time it was newly governed by the Confederates, takes the side of the Union as she, simply, believes slaves should be free and that the war is unnecessary bloodshed. Her family, being aristocracy in the South, had slaves they couldn’t free but that they paid, but she grew up with admiration for her family’s servants as people and part of the family.
Though Van Lew puts herself in danger as a traitor to the Confederacy if she is found to be a Union sympathizer, it does not stop her loyalty to what she feels is right and just in her own heart. I admired Van Lew in this novel and was drawn into her thoughts and pursuits right from the very start. I love reading of independent and motivated ladies who defy the norm and take a stance, even when their lives depend on it! So many women in so many historical time periods have done so, making a difference all throughout timelines. Yet, without reverence or record!!
I’m so pleased that Chiaverini chose to immortalize Van Lew through her historical fiction novel and I commend her strength as a writer to research and bring to the page such an amazing woman. It must have been hard, even as a writer, to contain Van Lew’s personality to a book, but Chiaverini does a phenomenal job in channeling Van Lew’s life, her thoughts, and her important work during the Civil War.
For a seasoned and intelligent reader, this novel is well-written and with superb sentence structure. I loved Chiaverini’s use of longer sentences, which really draws out the imagery and gives me substance. Her details gave me a distinct view of people and places and touched almost all my senses–from visuals, to scents, to what something must have felt like, and even to what something might have tasted like (and boy do I want that warm ginger cake!!). Chiaverini is a talented writer that is not dry or boring; she draws in the reader to the moment and immerses them in the drama of the story. It was mulit-layered and quick moving.
I felt connected to the protagonist Lizzie, but also to supporting characters such as her staunch supporter, her mother, Eliza Van Lew; her stoic and brave brother, John, who is also fighting for the North but whose snooty wife, Mary, has made friendly with the Confederates; and the lovely soul, Mary Jane Bowser, who is a colored woman and like a sister to Lizzie, but also becomes a spy within Confederate President Davis’ home. I could go on and on, as this book had so many amazing characters that really allowed Chiaverini to show the balance that everyone was living during this battle, which was also fought by many others that were not even on the frontline, but within the politics and quiet pursuits of everyday people who felt strongly about country and cause.
I was so amazed at the resilience of Van Lew in her courageous acts with the Union soldiers. It must have taken a great amount of strength and perseverance, as well as cunning and intelligent measures, to pull off what Van Lew did in her hope for a better America, and even more, a better humanity.
If you like the Civil War era, especially those based on Union stories, this book would be a must for your shelves! She gives a harrowing look into the emotional turmoil that this war caused for families, as well as the history of Virginia’s role in it. It’s a page-turner that holds a reader’s attention and deals with issues that makes it a great choice for discussion groups.
However, I also highly recommend this book for any women readers who love historical stories from any era, especially stories of amazing women of the past who made a difference for us all. There are so many women activists in history that can be left out of history books. They shouldn’t be forgotten, but celebrated!
I am so thankful for the historical fiction authors like Chiaverini who take the time to write books that people can easily read and relate to, and most of all, those that take the facts and create a story that is both entertaining and educational. We all can still learn lessons from those of the past, especially in regards to war, racism, and prejudice.
The Spymistress, Synopsis~
New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini is back with another enthralling historical novel set during the Civil War era, this time inspired by the life of “a true Union woman as true as steel” who risked everything by caring for Union prisoners of war — and stealing Confederate secrets.
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 posthumously inducted 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.
Pre-order or Order Link, On Shelves Oct. 1, 2013~
Author Jennifer Chiaverini, Biography~
Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as five collections of quilt patterns inspired by her novels. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, Quiltmaker’s 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. She is also the author of the highly praised Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.
She has taught writing at Penn State and Edgewood College and designs the Elm Creek Quilts fabric lines from Red Rooster Fabrics. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.
For more information about Jennifer, please visit her website at http://www.elmcreek.net.
*I was given an complimentary copy of this book by Dutton/Penguin, in return for an honest review on her blog tour.