The Spymistress

The Spymistress

4.0 24
by Jennifer Chiaverini

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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

…  See more details below


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 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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Readers of historical and inspirational fiction will admire Van Lew’s courage and commitment to her principles and the bravery of her ring of spies.” - Booklist

"'The Spymistress' also does what good historical fiction does - it places you there in history, but also makes you want to find out more about the real person and continue your education." - Durham Herald-Sun 

Praise for Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker:

“History—and its colorful characters—come alive.” – USA Today on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

“Required Reading . . . The story of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Lizzie Keckley, a former slave who became Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante. After the president’s assassination, Keckley created the Mary Todd Lincoln quilt and also a scandalous memoir. A new spin on the story.” – New York Post on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

“Jennifer Chiaverini imagines the first lady’s most private affairs through the eyes of an unlikely confidante.” – Harper’s Bazaar on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker 

“Chiaverini has drawn a loving portrait of a complex and gifted woman . . . Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker helps to illuminate the path on which her long and remarkable life led her.” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

“An example of what Jennifer Chiaverini does so well in her enlightening new historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, occurs late in the book, when a newly widowed Mary Todd Lincoln shares a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria with her dressmaker, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. . . . Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker vividly imagines how the Civil War touched daily life in Washington.” – Washingtonian on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a wonderful novel that covers many topics surrounding the events of the 1860s in Washington and the following decades… Any reader interested in President Lincoln, Civil War history, or historical fiction should love this book.” – on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

“All the characters are brilliantly written, and readers will enjoy getting to know them. [Chiaverini] brings to life long-forgotten snapshots of America’s past with style, grace and respect.” – RT Book Reviews on Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

“Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House.” – Library Journal on Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

“Her thorough research into the time period is reflected abundantly throughout the novel.” – Jackie’s Art Quilts on Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

“Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate.” – Library Journal on Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Praise for Jennifer Chiaverini and the Elm Creek Quilts series: “Chiaverini’s themes of love, loss, and healing will resonate with many, and her characters’ stories are inspiring.” —Publishers Weekly

“Chiaverini has an impressive ability to bring a time and place alive.” —Romantic Times Book Reviews

“Emotionally compelling.” —Chicago Tribune on Sonoma Rose

“Jennifer Chiaverini has made quite a name for herself with her bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series. From the Civil War to the Roaring Twenties to contemporary settings, these novels have offered suspense, romance, and, at times, in-depth looks into the social, political, and cultural differences that helped shape a nation.” —BookPage

“Chiaverini excels at weaving stories and at character development. We can relate to the residents of Elm Creek Valley because they remind us of folks we know—a cousin, an aunt, or a grandmother.” —Standard-Examiner (Utah)

Kirkus Reviews
Serviceable bio-fiction based on the heroic work of Elizabeth Van Lew, Union sympathizer and spy living in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., during the Civil War. Plunging into her research-packed story in April 1861, as Virginia secedes from the Union, Chiaverini (Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, 2013, etc.) keeps up a steady pace tracing the war experiences of wealthy abolitionist Lizzie Van Lew, a confirmed spinster whose fiance died 20 years earlier. Lizzie shares the family mansion with her widowed mother, brother John and his pro-Confederate wife Mary. As opinions polarize and fighting begins, Lizzie decides to devote herself to helping the Yankee prisoners, bringing in food and smuggling out messages from the squalid prisons housing them. Mary's Rebel sympathies cause a family rift and she and John move out, leaving Lizzie freer in her activities but in greater need of political camouflage to avoid suspicion. As the long, harsh war years pass, she becomes involved with an underground network of Unionist sympathizers taking great risks to assist the Northern cause by supplying information and an escape route. Although Lizzie receives threats to herself and her property, she and her family survive the war after which Gen., later President, Grant rewards her with the job of postmaster of Richmond. A capable but somewhat flavorless tribute to a brave woman.

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.18(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Confidential. Hd. Qrs. 18th Army Corps, Dept. Of Va., and N. C.,
Fortress Monroe, Dec. 19, 1863
Commander Boutelle, U. S. Coast Survey Office,
Washington, D. C.

My dear Boutelle: You will find enclosed a letter from a dear friend of yours in Richmond. I am informed by the bearer that Miss Van Lieu is a true Union woman as true as steel. She sent me a bouquet, so says the letter carrier.

Now, I much want a correspondent in Richmond, one who will write me of course without name or description of the writer, and she need only incur the risk of dropping an ordinary letter by flag of truce in the Post Office at Richmond, directed to a name at the North. Her messenger thinks Miss Van Lieu will be glad to do it.

I can place my first and only letter in her hands for her directions, but I also place the man’s life in her hands who delivers the letter. Is it safe so to do? Will Miss Van Lieu be willing to either correspond herself or find me such a correspondent? I could pay large rewards, but from what I hear of her I should prefer not to do it, as I think she would be actuated to do what she does by patriotic motives only.

I wish therefore you would write me, confidentially—­and as so much is depending, in the strictest secrecy, what you think of the matter. Of course you will readily see that I can furnish means by which a very commonplace letter on family affairs will read very differently when I see it.

Truly yours,

Benj. F. Butler


Chapter One

The Van Lew mansion in Richmond’s fashionable Church Hill neighborhood had not hosted a wedding gala in many a year, and if the bride-­to-­be did not emerge from her attic bedroom soon, Lizzie feared it might not that day either.

Turning away from the staircase, Lizzie resisted the urge to check her engraved pocket watch for the fifth time in as many minutes and instead stepped outside onto the side portico, abandoning the mansion to her family, servants, and the apparently bashful bridal party ensconced in the servants’ quarters. Surely Mary Jane wasn't having second thoughts. She adored Wilson Bowser, and just that morning she had declared him the most excellent man of her acquaintance. A young woman in love would not leave such a man standing at the altar.

Perhaps Mary Jane was merely nervous, or a button had come off her gown, or her flowers were not quite perfect. As hostess, Lizzie ought to go and see, but a strange reluctance held her back. Earlier that morning, when Mary Jane’s friends had arrived—­young women of color like Mary Jane herself, some enslaved, some free—­Lizzie had felt awkward and unwanted among them, a sensation unfamiliar and particularly unsettling to experience in her own home. None of the girls had spoken impudently to her, but after greeting her politely they had encircled Mary Jane and led her off to her attic bedroom, turning their backs upon Lizzie as if they had quite forgotten she was there. And so she was left to wait, alone and increasingly curious.

Grasping the smooth, whitewashed railing, Lizzie gazed out upon the sun-­splashed gardens, where the alluring fragrance of magnolia drifted on the balmy air above the neatly pruned hedgerows. Across the street, a shaft of sunlight bathed the steeple of Saint John’s Church in a rosy glow like a benediction from heaven, blessing the bride and groom, blessing the vows they would soon take. It was a perfect spring day in Richmond, the sort of April morning that inspired bad poetry and impulsive declarations of affection best kept to oneself. Lizzie could almost forget that not far away, in the heart of the city, a furious debate was raging, a searing prelude to the vote that would determine whether her beloved Virginia would follow the Southern cotton states out of the fragmenting nation.

Despite the clamor and frenzy that had surged in Richmond in the weeks leading up to the succession convention, Lizzie staunchly believed that reason, pragmatism, and loyalty would triumph in the end. Union­ist delegates outnumbered secessionist fire-­eaters two to one, and Vir­ginians were too proud of their heritage as the birthplace of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison to leave the nation their honored forebears had founded.

Still, she had to admit that John Lewis’s increasing pessimism troubled her. Mr. Lewis, a longtime family friend serving as a delegate from Rockingham County, had been the Van Lews’ guest throughout the convention, and his ominous reports of shouting matches erupting in closed sessions made her uneasy. So too did the gathering of a splinter group of adamant secessionists only a block and a half away from the Capitol, although outwardly she made light of the so-­called Spontaneous People’s Convention. “How can a convention be both spontaneous and arranged well in advance, with time for the sending and accepting of invitations?” she had mocked, but the tentative, worried smiles her mother and brother had given her in reply were but a small reward.

Although Lizzie managed such shows of levity of time to time, she could not ignore the disquieting signs that the people of Richmond were declaring themselves for the Confederacy in ever greater numbers. Less than a week before, when word reached the city of the Union gar­rison’s surrender at Fort Sumter in Charleston, neighbors and strangers alike had thronged into the streets, shouting and crying and flinging their hats into the air. Impromptu parades had formed and bands had played spirited renditions of “Dixie” and “The Marseillaise.” Down by the riverside at the Tredegar Iron Works, thousands had cheered as a newly cast cannon fired off a thunderous salute to the victors. Lizzie had been dismayed to see, waving here and there above the heads of the crowd, home-­sewn flags boasting the South Carolina palmetto or the three stripes and seven stars of the Confederacy. But when the crowd marched to the governor’s mansion, instead of giving them the speech they demanded, John Letcher urged them to all go home.

Lizzie had been heartened by the governor’s refusal to cower before the mob, and she prayed that his example would help other wavering Unionists find their courage and remember their duty. But two days later, word came to Richmond that President Lincoln had called for seventy-­five thousand militia to put down the rebellion—­and Virginia would be required to provide her share. Many Virginians who had been ambivalent about secession until then had become outraged by the president’s demand that they go to war against their fellow Southerners, and they defiantly joined the clamor of voices shouting for Virginia to leave the Union. John Minor Botts, a Whig and perhaps the most outspoken and steadfast Unionist in Richmond politics, had called the mobilization proclamation “the most unfortunate state paper that ever issued from any executive since the establishment of the government.”

But would it prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Lizzie could not allow herself to believe it.

“Rational men will not cave in to the demands of the mob,” Lizzie had argued to Mr. Lewis that very morning. Like herself, he was a Virginia native, born in 1818, and a Whig. Unlike her, he was married, had children, and could vote. “They will heed the demands of their consciences and the law.”

A few crumbs of Hannah’s light, buttery biscuits fell free from Mr. Lewis’s dark beard as he shook his head. “A man who fears for his life may be willing to consider a different interpretation of the law.”

At that, a shadow of worry had passed over Mother’s face. “You don’t mean there have been threats of violence?”

“It pains me to distress you, but indeed, yes, and almost daily,” Mr. Lewis had replied. “Those of us known to be faithful to the Union run a gauntlet of insults, abuse, and worse whenever we enter or depart the Capitol.”

“Goodness.” Mother had shuddered and hunched her thin shoulders as if warding off an icy wind. Petite and elegant, with gray eyes and an enviably fair complexion even at almost sixty-­three years of age, she was ever the thoughtful hostess. “You must allow us to send Peter and William along with you from now on. They will see to your safety.”

“Thank you, Madam, but I must decline. I won’t allow my enemies to believe they'veintimidated me.”

“When the vote is called, wiser heads will prevail,” Lizzie had insisted, as much to reassure herself and Mother as to persuade Mr. Lewis. “Virginians are too proud a people to let bullies rule the day.”

“As you say, Miss Van Lew. Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong.”

Remembering his somber words, Lizzie gazed off to the west toward the political heart of the city, scarcely seeing the historic church, the gracious homes, and the well-­tended gardens arrayed so beautifully before her. Instead she imagined the view from the Capitol gallery, where she had often sat and observed the machinery of government, and she wished she could be there to witness the contentious debate for herself. Of course, that was not possible. The gallery had been shut to visitors for the closed session, and Lizzie could not miss Mary Jane’s wedding. She could only wait for news and hope that her faith in the men of Virginia had not been misplaced.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for Jennifer Chiaverini and the Elm Creek Quilts series:
“Chiaverini’s themes of love, loss, and healing will resonate with many, and her characters’ stories are inspiring.” —Publishers Weekly

“Chiaverini has an impressive ability to bring a time and place alive.” —Romantic Times Book Reviews

“Emotionally compelling.” —Chicago Tribune on Sonoma Rose

“Jennifer Chiaverini has made quite a name for herself with her bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series. From the Civil War to the Roaring Twenties to contemporary settings, these novels have offered suspense, romance, and, at times, in-depth looks into the social, political, and cultural differences that helped shape a nation.” —BookPage

“Chiaverini excels at weaving stories and at character development. We can relate to the residents of Elm Creek Valley because they remind us of folks we know—a cousin, an aunt, or a grandmother.” —Standard-Examiner (Utah)

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The Spymistress 4 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 24 reviews.
Theophilusfamily More than 1 year ago
 The Spymistress by  Jennifer Chiaverini First:  I especially appreciated Jennifer Chiaverini's writing style, a style that fits the period in history when her characters lived. When you read old letters and journals and books from former times, you find a certain articulate reservation to their thoughts and speech, which is preserved here in the prose of this novel. When I find a historical fiction author whose writing fits the time she's writing about, I cheer. It shows that they have immersed themselves in research, so that you can immerse yourself in story. Reading The Spymistress lets you feel like you're living right in the turmoil of Richmond with Lizzie and her family.  And what a family it is! There are enough different characters, each seeing the world through their own eyes, that the reader is allowed to experience the war through  multiple nuanced perspectives.  A few of those perspectives include:  Mary Jane, the young woman whose incredible intelligence and near-photographic memory is ignored because her skin is a beautiful coffee color.  Mary Jane is like a younger sister to Lizzie. John, Lizzie's brother.  Union loyal but wed to Mary, who supports the Confederacy.  The tension is palpable as John tries to aid the sister he loves and at the same time live out his vows to the woman who stands for everything they're striving against.  And Lizzie herself.  Our protagonist is a woman who all girls should be introduced to. Lizzie fears...but she pushes herself on through the fear, living the true definition of courage. She knows that she does not act in her own strength, but in God's through Christ. She is a person like the rest of us, who finds pockets of love and happiness even in the middle of great struggle. She mourns the love she lost years before that left her a spinster, but her heart is open and giving, and her family means the world to her. She is indeed a heroine who we can admire and learn from.  This is a novel of suspense, of espionage, of war.  This is first of all a novel of humanity.  Human love and loyalty, human choices and human emotion shine from these pages.  Whoever professed that history is boring needs to meet Jennifer Chiaverini and The Spymistress.  Now to read Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker! 
Dollycas More than 1 year ago
Set in Virginia during the Civil War. When the state had seceded in April 1861, Elizabeth Van Lew dedicates herself to do anything she can to defy the new Confederate regime. A fiction story based on a real woman that few people know about. Chiaverini takes us into the life of a woman inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. Dollycas’s Thoughts We know Jennifer Chiaverini for her wonderful Elm Creek Quilt series. This is her second book away from the series the delves into a special woman in history. I absolutely loved Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Again she has intensely researched and brought us a story of another strong woman with courage and intelligence that put her life on the line to fight for this great country. She was a spinster, losing the man she loved way too soon. A woman who had no vote. A woman abolitionist, Unionist, loyal to President Lincoln living on the wrong side of the civil war. An independent woman who fought to give even a small amount of care and comfort to the Northern soldiers being held prisoner, many times with her mother by her side. There is a lot of content in this book. Each battle, each setback, each triumph. Elizabeth Van Lew was a smart, cunning woman who could think on her feet and was able to make Confederates believe what she was doing was good for the South while passing information and more to the North. The woman seemed to have no fear. The author’s story may not match to what others have written about Elizabeth Van Lew. I have seen her referred to as “Crazy Bet” in other books covering this time but Chiaverini explains that her “crazy” manner may have just been a way to avoid suspicion. I love the way this author writes but I have to say I enjoyed Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker more than the Spymistress. While both very worthwhile reads this one just had so much information I felt until overwhelmed at times. It is a very interesting and though fictionalized it is very educational. Jennifer Chiaverini has a way that makes her characters jump right out of the pages and you forget that these happenings they are enduring really took place. I am so proud this writer calls Wisconsin home.
BibliophileHS More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, along with the others written by Jennifer Chiaverini, that highlighted the contributions of women during the Civil War. By far, this novel highlighted the conviction and derring-do of a woman to act for the Union, while living in Richmond, Virginia. I think this would be a wonderful book to be read by young women while taking a Civil War history/American history class. Too many times, the narrative is about the war, battles, men, and the politics of the period, without regard for the women who lived through the same events and without the same rights and privileges the men enjoyed.
ljmoore More than 1 year ago
Ms Chiaverini continues to amaze me with her research and story spun around history. The Spymistress follows suit and is a wonderful read. Look forward to the next one!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have always enjoyed Jennifer Chiaverini's books. Delighted to find she is writing historical novels about women whose names aren't as familiar to us but who have played a definite part in our history. This book is well written. I definitely recommend it especially to those who enjoy history. Looking forward to her next one!
Anonymous 16 days ago
grannypl6 7 months ago
I had not heard of Lizzie Van Lew until I picked this book up. It is so well written that I fell into the story as if I fell into a dream. A wonderful story about a true American Heroine that most of us were not aware of. Pick this book up and find out for yourself. You will not be sorry you did
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a fast read and the story line was spell bounding. Loved all the Civil War history, especially learning about the POWs during that time. Read her previous novels and some of those characters re-appeared in The Spy Mistress.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Starting in the south 1861, it expands, collects, contracts to show how courage stepping over thresholds of prison camps and linked within Union spies under the rooftops of homes humble and grand thumbprint to mold our country. With a strong female lead, never boring, it should be required reading in schools.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings An interesting new perspective on the Civil War through the eyes of a Unionist living deep within the Confederate lines and how she copes with living among friends, family and enemies.  I was surprised that this book encompassed the entire Civil War, but in the end I was glad to read from the beginning to the end of the war.   Lizzie Van Lew is VA born and bred and has no wish to leave the state, but thinks she may have to as the state secedes from the Union.  She has slaves in her home, but only due to the complications from her father's will and her and her mother treat them more like family.  The author did a great job of showing the many different ways that Lizzie Van Lew tried to help her side of the "cause."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read many books about this era and this really could not hold my interest. I did not like Lizzie. I really do not think that in that era Lizzie could have been so bold.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Last year I read Jennifer Chiaverini's historical novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and found it quite enjoyable. I like to read novels based on historical people, and getting a different perspective on Mary Todd Lincoln was fascinating. Chiaverini's new novel The Spy Mistress is inspired by the true story of civil war espionage. Lizzie Van Lew was from a prominent Richmond Virginia family. She lived with her widowed mother Eliza and her brother John, a hardware store owner, his wife Mary and two young daughters. They were staunch patriots and disdained the institution of slavery. When Virginia seceeded from the Union, the Van Lews were stunned. Many of their neighbors supported the Confederacy, and the Van Lews were forced to keep their Unionist views to themselves to avoid being arrested. Richmond became the capitol of the Confederacy, and when Jefferson Davis was chosen as it's president, he moved his family (whom we met in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker) to the city. Richmond also became home to prisons housing Union soldiers captured in battle. Lizzie decided to help the Union cause. Under the guise of providing charity in the form of food and books, Lizzie asked for permission to visit the Northern prisoners. She came under suspicion from her neighbors and the Confederate leadership for this, but it was allowed. During her visits, she met with Union soldiers who gave her information, including the names of all the men imprisoned, to smuggle out to the North. One of the Union prisoners created a clever code, by punching letters on the pages of a book, that Lizzie quickly figured out. That impressed me a great deal. Soon Lizzie had recruited other Union supporters, including freed blacks, to become part of the spy ring sending messages to the Union generals on the battlefield. They even placed a spy inside the Davis home who discovered troop movements and strategies that Lizzie was able to send North. This is an intriguing look at the Civil War from another perspective, that of the Southern Union patriot. There is tension in the novel as Lizzie waited for the Union troops to retake Richmond, which takes years before succeeding. Lizzie's neighbors, as well as her sister-in-law who strongly supported the Confederacy, became more suspicious of her, and she worried that her mother may suffer for it. Her mother Eliza is a terrific character; she supported Lizzie's efforts, but better understood the importance of appearing to be a true Confederate. Lizzie says Eliza "was the very ideal of a Southern lady- kind, gracious, polite, well spoken, pious and charitable." She was also intelligent and tough when she needed to be. Lizzie used her feminine wiles to her advantage, winning over Confederate prison officials, like Mary Todd Lincoln's brother, with her charm and bribes of food and drink. She was underestimated by the Confederate military leaders who didn't count on Lizzie's intelligence or gumption to get what she wanted. After reading The Spy Mistress, I want to learn more about Elizabeth Van Lew and her real adventures. This is a terrific book to give to a young woman in high school who wants to learn more about the role women Southern played in the Civil War. It's an unknown story that deserves a wider audience, and Chiaverini tells it in a way that keeps the reader turing the pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am from Ohio and not from the South, but I found this book very poorly written in terms of historical "accuracy". Chiaverini wrote this book as though the North walked on water. Hello, anyone ever hear of Elmira prison?--A Northern prison camp for Confederate soldiers or Ohio's own Johnsons Island. A very powerful book written by Sue Monk Kidd, "Invention of Wings" details how racist many of the North treated Free Blacks as well as groups that weren't considered Christian such as the Quakers. I'm not defending the South, but both sides in a war commit horrible atrocities against one another!
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irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
Moments of Interest, But Slow. I really wanted to like this more than I did; the subject matter--Lizzie Van Lew's ingenious methods of spying for the Union during the Civil War--is fascinating. Her family issues are also engaging; however, this drags in many places. I often felt the plot bogged down with unnecessarily at times with extra details we did not need, background info on characters who, ultimately, did not play a big enough role to warrant all the "stuff." Be advised there are MANY characters to keep track of: Lizzie's spy ring grows larger as the novel progresses, along with the many Confederate military, politicians, etc she also deals with. Finally, I could not help feeling the depictions of the two sides were terribly generalized and simplistic--Rebels are almost uniformly brutal and unreasonable, while all Union soldiers and/or sympathizers appear almost saintly. While perhaps this was the author's way of showing us Lizzie's view, it did not work for me. Everyone knows that in the Civil War--in any war--atrocities are tragically committed on both sides; there are many 'shades of gray' to both sides. Those shades were just lost for me here. I may come from a long line of Yankees, but in depth Civil War history shows the complex, often cruel and brutal truth of what happened on both sides. I felt this was just a bit too glossed over.
Doodlebug4444 More than 1 year ago
5 out of 5 for this reader folks! So if you have read my reviews before, you will know I am a bit of history lover.  I am fascinated by the Civil War between the North and the South of America and this book just so happens to be the focal point of a non fictional character that braved the odds, fought for what she believed in and put her life on the line to make whatever difference she could in this war. The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini is a page turning, compelling historical fiction based on the efforts of real life Elizabeth Van Lew.  I enjoyed this read so much, that I actually researched more about this incredible woman. I was pleasantly surprised to find Jennifer write this piece of fiction around facts and true life historical events and kept Elizabeth as precise as she could.  I have much respect for an author who can make a piece of real history come to life and make it completely believable!  WELL DONE JENNIFER CHIAVERINI! Ok, let's get on with the review! This book opens just as Richmond, Virginia has voted on seceding with the South in 1861.  Elizabeth's family is aristocratic and slave owners but her mother and her have come to believe that is no longer the future.  Legally blocked by her father's will, the Van Lew family are not allowed to free their slaves, but they sure make life bearable by granting them papers to live as free as they can (the slaves have to check in for legal purposes).  Absolutely disgusted with the state of Virginia and the people who have flipped in agreement with secession (they realize that nothing but bloodshed and angst will come if war is declared ... and they were right), they decide to do what little they can to fight against their own confederate army. Throughout this novel, Elizabeth (Lizzie) and her band of ladies (my personal nickname for them Mary Jane Bowser (her coloured friend who gives up her freedom to serve as a servant and spy in Confederate leader Davis's home), Eliza Van Lew (Lizzie's beautiful hearted mother) and Eliza Carrington (a family friend who is as brave as Lizzie) work together as Union sympathizer's.  Realizing they are being watched and potentially cast as traitor's, these woman take it upon themselves to outwardly show support for the Confederacy while internally they are spying for and supporting the union.  They visit underground and aid Northerner's in escaping, visit prisons and use the guise of being humanitarian to receive and pass on messages that aid the Northerner's to success and go as far as hiding people in their own home.  All of this is done right under the nose of the confederate army and at any time they can be caught and killed for espionage and treason. Of course there are many other supporting characters and major events on both sides, men and women, North and South, that contribute to all the emotions you will experience while reading this book.  So many in fact that I could easily write a four page review.  LOL!  I will not spoil anything, especially if you are not familiar with this part of history.  Know however, that Jennifer Chiaverini writes all her characters with so many complex layers that they become clearly believable.  Not many characters are written black and white, but very much shades of grey.  You read many internal struggles and I can only imagine how hard it had to be to pick a side you believe in when outside influence greatly affects your way quality of life or even if you will live that life. An absolutely fantastic book by a wonderful author.  I am anticipating reading more of her books that follow this genre.  If you are a history buff and/or this era is interesting to you, please have a read of The Spymistress.  It most certainly has it all, from mystery, suspense, page turning anticipation, heart, and character. HAPPY READING! :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent research in this historical novel about a Virginia woman who worked behind the scenes for emancipation and the Union victory from her location in the heart of the Confederacy, Richmond. I did not know the story, and didn't realize it was based on fact until I'd been "hooked." Rich in detail, and I think Ms. Chiaverini did a better job of relaxing into the storytelling qualities of the writing right off the bat, as opposed to "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" (which was also an excellent book, but slightly "dry" at first until the author was able to let the storytelling just flow rather than try too hard to impart too many facts). "Dressmaker" was an impressive non-fiction debut, and this one is even better. Can't wait to see where the next project leads!