Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

From Goodreads:
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.
 History isn't always my go-to in terms of non-fiction.  I'm much more likely to pick up something science, medical, psychological, or sociological than I am to pick up a strict history text.  That said, something about this one just called out to me and I am so very glad it did.  It's certainly one of the best non-fiction works I've read this year and I'd venture to guess that it'll wind up on my top ten overall list for the year.  It's just brilliantly done.

I was hooked form the author's opening note, before the book even begins.  She makes a point to tell us that the book contains "no invented dialogue.  Anything that appears between quotations comes from a book, diary, letter, archival note, transcript, or...from stories passed down by her descendants."

One of my biggest problems with historical non-fiction, particularly works that purport to read like popular fiction, is that the author embellishes, intentionally or unintentionally, and that the facts take second place to the story.  This is certainly not a problem for Abbott.  Her research is intensive - there are almost fifty pages of notes at the end and a complete bibliography over ten pages long.  There is not a single bone to pick in terms of research, accuracy, and attention to nuanced details.  Abbott clearly did her research and let that guide the book.

Entertainment Value
In addition to what I've said above regarding the attention to historical detail and the intensity of research, I could not put this book down.  The four women profiled are absolutely fascinating.  Abbott had no need to deviate from historical fact because the facts are just so very compelling.  The lives of these women are extraordinary.  I can't even begin to start telling you how intriguing and compelling their stories are, and Abbott tells them in a way that reads like a narrative, while staying true to her research.  I'm so impressed with the way she was able to avoid creating any dialogue outside of historical record, but the book still manages to read like something straight out of fiction.

I've already recommended this to the Nesties as a group and to individuals who I think will enjoy it, and it's one that I'll be pushing hard whenever anyone asks me for a non-fiction recommendation this fall.  It's just remarkably well done.  I think it will appeal not only to history buffs, but also to those who enjoy historical fiction and biography.  And of course, it would be a great choice for anyone with a particular interest in the Civil War.  We're only looking at three months till Christmas, and I think this is an excellent option for gift-giving.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour.  Click here to see the full list of bloggers participating.


  1. Wow! I have had no interest in this book but your review makes me want to download this to my nook and start reading now!! Lol. I am always looking for those standout non-fiction books. Thanks!

  2. Sounds like this book impressed you on a number of levels! It's exactly the kind of book I enjoy so I'm glad to see how highly you recommend it.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!