‘Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy’ tells fascinating history

Despite the many, many books written about the Civil War, there is a chapter that may not be as well known to readers, which is the role women played as spies. In Karen Abbott’s soon to be released novel, “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War,” Abbott takes her keen eye to history and tells a compelling, surprising, moving and thoroughly true story about the women who risked their lives in service to their country.

Opening in 1861, the book tells the accounts of Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds, Rose Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew, four women who stopped at nearly nothing to ensure their patriotic duty was done. Boyd and Greenhow spied for the south, Edmonds and Van Lew for the north.

The stories of these four spies have been meticulously researched and presented in a way that is reminiscent of a novel. If there’s one thing Abbott’s books aren’t it’s dry. In addition to the four women’s stories, which are all equally fascinating, there are plenty of anecdotes to keep the narrative going and remain interesting. The book does not just solely tell these women’s stories; it gives us a glimpse into the past. For example, during the war the price of bacon in the south became as high as $20 a pound – in 1860s money. Today that equals to over $300 per pound. But some of the more interesting things come from the details of spying and espionage the women did. They would use their femininity to hide their spying. If accused of being a spy, they would feign indignation at such an accusation, meanwhile they would have secret letters or information sewn into their garments or hidden in their hair.

Despite the different missions (and viewpoints regarding slavery) of the four women, there are aspects of all of their characters that make them relatable. The fierceness with which they are willing to fight for their country, whether it be the north or south, is inspiring. Belle Boyd shot a Union soldier in her home, opening the way for her to become a spy in service of the south. Emma Edmonds posed as a man under the name Frank Thompson in order to fight in the war. Rose Greenhow used her femininity to gather information and Elizabeth Van Lew, living in the south, helped to hide Union soldiers.

Like her earlier books, “Sin in the Second City’ and “American Rose,” Karen Abbott has uncovered a slice of history that is both educational and entertaining. “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy,” available Sept. 2, is a book that’s not to be missed.