Essay by Author Karen Abbott
I hadn’t given much thought to the Civil War until one summer day in 2002, when I found myself stuck in traffic on Route 400 outside of Atlanta, idling for hours behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: DON’T BLAME ME—I VOTED FOR JEFF DAVIS. As a native Philadelphian newly transplanted to the Deep South, I was struck by the idea that Civil War personalities and politics lived on, in ways both frivolous and sincere, nearly a century and a half after the last body was buried and the final sacrifice made.
In 1861, as North and South split into separate countries and two armies prepared for war, women had to adjust to the sudden absence of fathers and husbands and sons, to the idea that things would never be as they had been. They had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no influence in how the battles were waged. While some women formed aid societies and raised money for soldiers, others embarked on far riskier paths, determined to change the course of the war—by any means necessary and at any cost.
In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy I tell the stories of four such women: a rebellious teenager with a dangerous temper; a Canadian expat on the run from her past; a widowed mother with nothing left to lose; and a wealthy society matron who endured death threats for years, and lost as much as she won. Each, in her own way, was a liar, a temptress, a soldier, and a spy, often all at once. I hope you will be as captivated by Belle, Emma, Rose, and Elizabeth as I am—and by the strange and fascinating world of Civil War espionage.
Guest Reviewer Denise Kiernan on Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Denise Kiernan is the New York Times bestselling author of The Girls of Atomic City. She began her career in journalism, served as head writer for ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire during its Emmy award-winning first season and is also the author of several American history titles including Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence, Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution and Stuff Every American Should Know.
It is no small task for a writer to wade into the well-swum waters of the American Civil War and emerge with a book that manages to enhance the existing canon while holding the attention of casual readers and history buffs alike. Author Karen Abbott has accomplished both admirably in her latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.
This is a war we all think we know, but our four protagonists take us undercover in a way that enlivens this moment in American history through their unique, unheard-of perspectives. We step inside the war, eavesdrop on their worlds and watch how events compel them to become involved in this conflict on so deep and dangerous a level, a choice truly extraordinary for women of their day.
Ms. Abbott does not shy away from her characters’ shortcomings, letting them inspire and offend the reader as the narrative calls for it. The views of the women portrayed here range from inspired to reprehensible, and their motives follow suit. Abbott's engaging prose is backed by dogged research that buoys the stories with delightful insights rather than bogging them down in extraneous noting.
From battles to boudoirs, the book offers a fresh and intimate look at the Civil War and is teeming with the kinds of detail and imagery that allowed me to sink into the past. We watch as these intrepid-yet-flawed women evade capture and succumb to it, succeed and fail.
I found it intoxicating as both a reader and a lover of history to walk through this world with Elizabeth, Belle, Emma, and Rose as my guides. Had I known them, I certainly would not have welcomed all of them as friends, and nor did I cheer all of them on as I read about their wartime exploits. I did, however, feel as though I knew them, because their tales sucked me in and kept me invested. Before reading this book, I certainly knew how the Civil War would end. However once I began reading, I had to know how these four lives would play out.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a captivating addition to both Ms. Abbott’s already impressive body of work as well as to the annals of American history and the unsung women who helped make it.
“Engrossing…Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is conscientiously researched and smoothly written and structured.” (Wall Street Journal)
“A revelation... Abbott profiles four [women], sometimes weaving, sometimes stacking their stories together into a compelling narrative.” (USA Today (four stars))
“Eloquent… A riveting psychological inquiry and probing examination of the courage, incomparable patriotism, stamina, and agility of four women who repeatedly risked their lives to serve their citizenry... Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy [feels] like an operatic espionage novel, where deception, betrayal, love, and redemption are interspersed with gripping combat scenes and perilous rescues.” (Los Angeles Review of Books)
“Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy...is full of so many titillating dramas and details, you could be forgiven for periodically checking the back of the book to make sure it’s nonfiction.” (Christian Science Monitor)
“Gripping... a remarkable story of passion, strength, and resilience.” (Publishers Weekly (Starred Review))
“Compelling... Karen Abbott stitches together a patchwork narrative as complex as a pieced quilt, combining the colorful, unrelated tales of four women who fought in the Civil War as surely as Lee and Grant… [her] high achievement lies in her Augean compilation of published and archival material.” (Washington Times)
“Abbott’s prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact.” (Washington Post)
“Karen Abbott’s powerful narrative is first rate American history about a fascinating, little-known chapter of the Civil War, as well as a compulsive, thrilling saga of espionage. Brilliant storytelling, highly accessible, and impossible to put down.” (Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove)
“Abbott…[reveals] in such vivid detail the extraordinary lives of women who involved themselves so dangerously in the Civil War. This is that rare work of history that reads like a novel -- and a really good one at that -- and in which the truth is more thrilling than fiction. ” (Michael Korda, NY Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence)