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Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott

February 3, 2015 5 comments

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen AbbottSummary:
Abbott looks at the little discussed role of women in the Civil War by highlighting the lives of four different women spies, two with loyalties to the South and two to the North.  By following their lives through the Civil War, Abbott demonstrates the critical role women played in the Civil War that is too often silenced.

Review:
Doing Dewey’s review of this book landed it on my wishlist, and I was really pleased to receive it for Christmas.  It was everything I’d expected it to be.  A look at the Civil War through a women’s history perspective and told in an easy to follow style with lots of respect for the historical source material.

Abbott notes at the beginning of the book that she only uses quotation marks around information she is directly quoting from source material.  I knew from that second forward I was going to enjoy this work of nonfiction, because too often authors stray either too far toward hearsay and imagining how people felt or too far toward distancing themselves from anything other than the driest facts.  Abbott beautifully switches among the four different women, following the timeline of the Civil War and telling their stories simultaneously.  This lends a clearer perspective on the Civil War than I had before.  It puts a humanizing eye on real events.

So who are the four women highlighted in this book?  On the side of the North, there’s Emma Edmonds, who had already been living as a man to escape a marriage being forced upon her by her family.  Emma enlisted as a Union soldier and soon wound up spying for them — pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman to cross the lines.  There’s also Elizabeth Van Lew and her freed slave Mary Bowser in Richmond who worked together to spy on the Confederate president.  On the side of the South there’s Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a socialite in DC who used her affairs with Northern politicians to spy.  There is also Belle Boyd, a boisterous woman at first more interested in notoriety than in helping any cause but whose loyalty to the South became ever more strong.

This book makes it clear that women made ideal spies thanks to sexism.  The men of the North and South both viewed women as the “delicate sex” that would never actually participate in anything so soiled as war, so when they attempted to cross the lines, they would be let through without being searched.  The more high class a woman, the more protection she was afforded, so even though women were under suspicion, they were always treated better than men under the same suspicion.  For instance, Belle Boyd was caught red-handed as a spy once.  The penalty for a man would be death, but she was sent to prison and then later paroled and sent back to the South, basically with a slap on the wrist and demand she not do that again.  Another example, in the case of Elizabeth Van Lew,

For now, at least, her social position and gender served as her most convincing disguise. No one would believe that a frail, pampered spinster was capable of plotting treasonous acts, let alone carrying them out right under the government’s nose. (page 47)

Abbott does a good job of presenting the reality of these women’s lives and their politics matter-of-factly with little judgment from the future.  The women are allowed to basically speak for themselves, and the reader can ultimately decide how they feel about them.  Abbott maintains the historic feel by referring to African-Americans as “Negroes.”  This may bother some readers, and they should be aware to expect it.

The only element of the book that disappointed me was how the author handled Mary Bowser.  First, this woman is not one of the four featured in the book description or the title, and yet she served as a spy inside the Confederacy presidential household.  Mary Bowser was freed from slavery at a young age by Van Lew’s family.  The Van Lew’s sent her North to be educated and kept her on in the household as a free servant.  When Elizabeth heard that Confederate President Davis’s household needed more servants, she talked to Mary about her serving there.  This educated and highly intelligent woman (she was rumored to have a photographic memory) proceeded to pretend to be the stupid, subservient person the Davises were expecting through their racism, and thus was able to do things like dust President Davis’s desk and memorize upcoming troop movements to report later.  It was thanks to her work in conjunction with Elizabeth, who organized how to get the information out of the South to the North, that the Union was able to know so many of the Confederacy moves ahead of time.  Yet, she is not featured as one of the four main women in the book.  She is not listed as one of the women spies. The end of her life after the Civil War is not mentioned, not even to say whether or not Abbott was able to find any information about her.  For a book highlighting the lives of those often erased from history, writing Mary as Elizabeth’s sidekick was quite disappointing.

The book ends by telling the reader what ultimately happened in these women’s lives after the Civil War.  It’s a bit of a sad note, particularly for the Union women who fought for freedom and yet wound up with little of it themselves.

At last Elizabeth retreated, withdrawing entirely from public life. She had no target for her ferocious will. Her one political act was to attach a note of “solemn protest” to her annual tax payment, declaring it unjust to tax someone who was denied the vote. (page 426)

Overall, this book covers the history of the Civil War from the unique women’s history perspective of women spies.  Those looking for an engaging alternate way to learn about Civil War history will enjoy this book and learning about the women who had an impact on history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: The Hornet’s Sting: The Amazing Untold Story Of Second World War Spy Thomas Sneum by Mark Ryan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 20, 2014 2 comments

Image of a biplane, a swastika, and a man with a gun. The book's title and author's name are on this image.Summary:
Thomas Sneum was a Danish Allied spy during World War II who was periodically suspected of being a double agent.  Partially due to this suspicion and partially due to infighting between the two British spy agencies (SIS and SOE), he never got the attention or respect he deserved.  Mark Ryan, the author, found out about him and set out to get to know him.  Both personally and through research.  Here he tells the true story of Tommy Sneum and sets the record straight once and for all.

Review:
I picked this book up during a kindle sale because I’m a big WWII buff and who doesn’t love real life spy stories?  I thought it was a sure bet, but apparently even a true life spy story can be written in a dull manner.

It’s impossible to read the book without learning a lot.  For instance, I had no idea that Britain had two different spy agencies that were battling each other for control of spying missions.  This infighting between the SIS and the SOE led to lack of communication and lack of a solid spy front with one, unified plan.  Similarly, I didn’t know it was common practice to take people who had escaped from behind Nazi lines, train them as spies, then re-drop them back in their home countries.  I always thought the resistance movement just built up from the inside and then they contacted the Allies on the outside with information.  How much more complex it was is really interesting.  I also loved learning more about those from occupied countries who escaped and fought in other militaries against the Nazis.  In spite of learning all of these new to me facts about WWII spying, the book manages to be dull.  Ryan tends to wander off on side diatribes about the intricacies of red tape and paperwork instead of focusing in on the more action-oriented, interesting bits of the spying.  He also spends a lot of time giving the full name of every single person even vaguely connected with Tommy and the spying, even if they really have no impact on the story.  The book could really have used a bit more streamlining and focus to keep the energy up.  Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean it can, or should, meander.

Tommy Sneum is hard to root for.  He’s not a likable guy.  He abandons his wife and infant daughter to go be a spy.  That could definitely be seen as valiant, however, he expresses consistent distate for his wife and a lack of concern or care for even knowing his daughter.  He certainly comes across in the book as a guy just after adventure, not so much a man looking to protect his country or his family.  Similarly, Tommy express arrogance when it comes to women, claiming that they essentially would go sleep with him at the drop of a hat or a snap of his fingers.  He does not come across as seeing women as people but rather as recreational objects.  One story that really demonstrates this is he tells the author that he had a threesome once, and he was upset that the women dared to pay attention to each other at all, rather than 100% to him.  Sex is supposed to be about people giving to each other, not about one person being worshiped.  His general attitude towards women gave me a squicky feeling throughout the book.  Of course, most people are not all bad or good.  Tommy is no exception.  He expresses a real openness toward a male colleague who was known to be bi.  He refuses to view all Germans as evil monsters and insists, to those high up in the British resistance no less, that most Germans are just caught up in Hitler’s war machine.  Of course, these even-handed views are almost universally held of men.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ryan’s investigation into the accusations that Sneum was a double-agent.  This part of the book isn’t really played up in the blurb, which I think is unfortunate.  Ryan did a lot of investigative work and lays out all the details that he believes clears Sneum’s name.  Seeing how Sneum and his methods were misunderstood by the British and also how having two different spy agencies working led to misunderstandings was truly fascinating, and I’m glad Ryan took the time to work at finding the truth.

Overall, this is a rather slow-paced work of historic nonfiction that focuses in on the red tape and organizational aspects of spying more than exciting adventures.  It does good work in determining that Sneum was not a double agent in WWII.  Sneum’s womanizing can be a bit tedious at times, although his even-handed perspective on the German people is good to see.  Recommended to those interested in the organizational aspects of spying in WWII, including very minute details.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: Apparently this book is no longer available on the kindle.