Historical Fiction: The Spymistress, by Jennifer Chiaverini

my rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Van Lew was born to a prominent family in Richmond, Virginia. Unusual for the time and place, they manumitted their slaves a decade before the Civil War, and regarded all African-Americans as equals. The Van Lews, though devoted to their state, are appalled and dismayed when it secedes, and they decide not to support the Confederacy in any way. It isn’t long before their neighbors notice, especially when Lizzie, by this time a spinster, demands permission to nurse Union POWs held in Richmond’s Libby Prison, a converted factory. From that point forward, the Van Lews are ostracized by all but the few like minded families that remain in the city. Lizzie comes to realize that, as her patients come to trust her, she’s ideally positioned to act as a spy for the Union. The Spymistress dramatizes her story, one that deserves wider recognition than it currently holds.

Although at times the novel dips into the melodramatic,  it does a creditable job of demonstrating the  sacrifices made by Lizzie and her fellow Unionists, black or white. To say that they  risked their lives to undermine the Confederate cause is an understatement; it’s believed that one of the former Van Lew slaves, Mary Bowser, collaborated with Lizzie by hiring herself out as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s executive mansion. While reading about their espionage activities is intriguing, the last section of the book, following the surrender of Richmond, is eye-opening.  Ulysses S. Grant told Lizzie that she provided the most valuable information to come out of Richmond during the War Between the States, and The Spymistress illuminates the courage and heroism of Lizzie Van Lew and her compatriots. Well worth reading.


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