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

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Last week my book club gathered to discuss Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, a nonfiction title about four women who participated in espionage activities during the Civil War. This was the fourth nonfiction book that we’ve read this year (the others are The Knife Man, When Paris Went Dark and The Plantagenets) and it wasn’t a favorite. Only three out of seven of us finished the book so the discussion was a bit lackluster.

I personally enjoyed the subject matter as I’ve always loved spy stories and reading about these bold women (two for the Confederate and two for the Union) who risked their very lives to provide vital information to the military was completely absorbing. My favorite of the spies was a woman named Elizabeth Van Lew, an unmarried woman who lived in the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, yet who believed in the Union cause, especially abolition. She created an intricate spy network whose members gave the Union army information about Confederate troop movements and she also helped Union soldiers escape from prisons in and around Richmond. Out of all four of the women she was the one whose motives for spying were the purest (in my opinion) and who never profited off of her experience by writing her memoir or giving speeches. I think she is a true hero.

The trouble with the book is that it is written in a narrative nonfiction style – so it is meant to read like a novel. The author embellishes the facts with lots of little imaginative details that do feel more like reading a novel than reading a historical nonfiction book. I am not completely opposed to this style as I feel it does make history come alive when done well, but in this instance it seemed to interfere with the flow of the book. The chapters are very short and choppy, sometimes almost like vignettes and it was rather annoying to have a cliff hanger every other chapter. The three of us who finished the book all noted the style as problematic and I think it might have contributed to the other members not being able to finish the book.

Our next book up for discussion at the end of September is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a book I’ve read before and liked and I am looking forward to reading it again.

9 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Ooooh, I like your header photo – particularly because I can decipher some of the titles 🙂

    I was initially really eager to read this, but what I read about the style put me off. So I’ve been reading about the individual women instead. I have a biography of Elizabeth van Lew that I bought last year – I need to get back to it.

    1. I love a little peek at other readers’ bookshelves so I thought I’d give everyone a peek at mine. 🙂

      I would enjoy a bio of Elizabeth van Lew – she is a really fascinating woman and I would have enjoyed reading more about her and less about Emma Edmonds or Belle Boyd, I think.

  2. I love narrative nonfiction when it’s based in fact. When there’s too much embellishment with the author’s speculations it annoys me, so I decided to give this one a miss. If it reads too much like a novel, I think it should just be a novel. Fascinating premise though!

    1. This would have made a wonderful novel -Abbott is a very good, descriptive writer. The embellishments here were just too obvious, but would be fantastic in a novel.

  3. Interesting sounding book but I know what’s you mean by the embellishment. I’m going off all these fictionalised biographies in a big way too – I’m starting to feel that when I read non-fiction It really has to be non fiction and not someone’s made up interpretation!

    1. I feel the same way – the biographical fiction novels have really put me off lately. It doesn’t seem right to take a real person’s life and fictionalize it so shamelessly. I don’t think I’ll be reading any of those types of novels anytime soon.

  4. How disappointing. I can understand and appreciate narrative non fiction when it draws me into real history, but I don’t like it when authors embellish – especially when there is no need – or when there is uncertainty and they come down firmly on a particular side of the argument.

    1. I don’t think there was a need to embellish here as most of the women left letters, journals and memoirs that fully explained the events. I would have liked it more if it would have pulled back on the imagination and been more solid on explaining the history. But is is a very fascinating story.

Thank you for reading and commenting.

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