Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Spy Mistress: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Spy Mistress: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini
Published in paperback March 2014
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
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.

My Thoughts:
The entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking "my mom is going to like this book - I can't wait to give it to her." As the wife of a retired Civil War history teacher, she's developed no small interest in the war herself. As a woman who enjoys reading about woman in history, I knew that she would enjoy reading this novel based on the true story of Elizabeth Van Lew who was posthumously inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. I don't imagine many women, prior, perhaps, to this decade, can claim that distinction.

Elizabeth Van Lew
Chiaverini brings to light Van Lew's remarkable story of passion and bravery woven into a detailed account of the Civil War in so far as it impacted the city of Richmond, Virginia. Having grown up immersed in this part of our history myself, I was impressed with Chiaverini's research into the military maneuvers. Much of the story centers around Van Lew's work with the Union prisoners in Richmond's prisons and Chiaverini gives the reader more then enough detail to grasp the conditions of the prisons and treatment the prisoners received without allowing the story to become maudlin.

This being a work of fiction, I have no way of knowing how much of the spying Chiaverini has Van Lew doing in the book was real. So, of course, I had to do some research and discovered that most of the details regarding the spying included in the novel are accurate. I was aware, prior to this book, that there were spies during the war. I had no idea the extent of the network in the South. Certainly, there would have been people on both sides of the war who had allegiances to the other side but for some reason, I had never given much thought to what those people might have contributed to the success of the armies.

Jennifer Chiaverini
Chiaverini does a fine job of telling Van Lew's story, capturing the emotions on both sides and the tension as the war dragged on. Occasionally I felt that things got a big repetitive and the story might have benefited from a bit more editing but some of that repetition served to remind readers of the roller coaster ride of hopes and despair Van Lew, her family and friends, and the citizens of Richmond experienced. For fans of the Civil War and those interested in books about women in history, I highly recommend this book.

For other opinions about The Spy Mistress, check out the full TLC Book Tour. Chiaverini is also the author of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which I reviewed here. Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!


  1. Sounds interesting! I know a little bit about the Civil War but don't know very much about the spy network other than a vague knowledge that they existed. I'll definitely have to pick this one up.

  2. Have you been watching Turn on tv? Interesting spy series on the Revolutionary War. The Civil War is the one period of American History that I haven't studied carefully. I think I'd be interested in this book; thank you!

  3. I've been really curious about this one and am glad you liked it, Lisa, even with its flaws. I haven't read too much in the way of Civil War fiction (my dad was more into it than I ever have been), but this book definitely caught my attention when I first heard about it.

  4. Whoa - I had seen the cover and dismissed it but now that I know it is based on true people, I want to read it! Thanks.

  5. I read about Elizabeth Van Lew in a middle grade book about the female spies of the Civil War, so this book sounds really good to me.