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Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War Hardcover – September 2, 2014
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From the Publisher
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)
From the Inside Flap
An Amazon Best Book of 2014
A Library Journal Best Book of 2014
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of 2014
Rose O'Neal Greenhow
Elizabeth Van Lew
In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, bestselling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything--their homes, their families, and their very lives--during the Civil War.
Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an avowed rebel with a dangerous temper, shot a Union soldier in her home and became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her considerable charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man to enlist as a Union private named Frank Thompson, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the war and infiltrating enemy lines, all the while fearing that her past would catch up with her. The beautiful widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians, used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals, and sailed abroad to lobby for the Confederacy, a journey that cost her more than she ever imagined. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring--even placing a former slave inside the Confederate White House--right under the noses of increasingly suspicious rebel detectives.
Abbott's pulse-quickening narrative weaves the adventures of these four forgotten daredevils into the tumultuous landscape of a broken America, evoking a secret world that will surprise even the most avid enthusiasts of Civil War-era history. With a cast of real-life characters, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, Detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoléon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shines a dramatic new light on these daring--and, until now, unsung--heroines.-- Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of Gods in Alabama and Someone Else's Love Story
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You see what's missing, right? Women didn't fight as soldiers (unless you were Emma Edmondson/Frank Thompson) but they were as integral a part of the war effort as the men--and here Abbott gives us a readable and partly-novelized version of four women who acted as spies during the war. In these portraits of four women, you get a sense of the socially interwoven, small geographical distances (compared to the current US), political manuevering, and social class system that was the background of the Civil War.
And the women themselves; two Union, two Confederate spies (the Confederate spies seemed to thrive in the media spotlight in a more flamboyant way than the more secretive Unionists) are fascinating women of their time.
You can read the other reviews to find out about who the book is about, so let me just highlight in this review how readable, interesting, and weirdly novelesque the history is in this book. Abbott rotates chapters between each woman, usually cutting off a narrative at some cliff-hangery point like when Union guards come to arrest Belle Boyd, etc. There are primary sources quoted and evocative descriptions of obviously well-researched places like Old Capitol prison, and then there are the "novelized" moments where the narrative takes on a kind of self-conscious literary thrill-seeker quality; such Rose's little daughter's black eyes fervently peeking over snow-white covers when her spy mother puts her to bed during a Union search of her house or the description of Belle's thoughts while she drowned.
I like those novelized bits, it made the women seem more real to me than often strictly historically accurate depictions do.
Anyway, highly recommended slice of American Civil War history for anyone interested in strong American females' history or Civil War.
Top international reviews
book very well researched, with a pleasing writing style, that captures the true character of her four heroines.
I enjoyed the epilogue where the author finishes each character's final story and provides the reader with information
not known about them from most sources on their lives. We usually read of the bravery and courage of the men in this
period of war, but these ladies showed a sense of purpose, stubbornness and lack of fear that places them alongside all heros and heroines, who served for their side of this great conflict.
As a Canadian, I enjoyed reading about Emma Edmonds and her difficult but extraordinary life.
Karen Abott has mined the archives with great diligence and assembled her findings into a vivid picture while scrupulously voiding taking sides. To that extent it is a scholarly piece of work but there have to be reservations.
In an introduction, Ms Abott claearly differentiates between direct quotes from letters, journals and official documents. She goes on to claim that surrounding material - representing, for example, the thoughts of participants - is soundly based. Perhaps the many pages of notes would have helped substantiate that claim but, as presented on Kindle, they are virtually impossible to use.
What worries is the author's apparently uncritical acceptance of anything she finds, even if it comes from a single source . This is particularly worrying in the case of Emma Thompson who enlisted in the guise of a man. The author writes of a teenaged Emma having "spotted six partridges ... One by one Emma shot the birds ... cleanly in the head." This argues astonishing marksmanship with the relatively primitive weapons of the time, not to mention the belief that once the first shot was fired the other five birds meekly waited to be slaughtered.
Emma's feats of bravery are told at length but many of them involve her in a one-on-one situation, so the only source has been Emma herself. And there is one lengthy passage which ends with Emma conceding that it is only fantasy.
Elsewhere there is an account of a battle where the cannon fire and gun fire could not be heard by the commanding general nearby because of intervening woods and ground formation yet could be head, the author writes, "hundreds of miles away." Hundreds of miles?
So the reader will have cause to be doubtful when one person or another "empties their face of emotion" or when "Elizabeth allowed one eyebrow to creep upward."
A pity that an interesting and painstaking book should fall between being a valuable document and a Victorian novel.