Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blog Tour and Review: The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

Title: The Spymistress
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Published: October 2013, Dutton Adult
Format: ARC Paperback, 368 pages
Source: Publisher

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini is back with another enthralling historical novel set during the Civil War era, this time inspired by the life of a true Union woman as true as steel” who risked everything by caring for Union prisoners of war — and stealing Confederate secrets.

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.

Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.

My thoughts: I first heard of Jennifer Chiaverini when I came across the Elm Creek Quilts series and after reading the first one, I knew she was an author to keep in mind. While I have every intention of reading the rest of that series, her new book last year caught my eye - Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker. I devoured that book and so when I saw she had another historical fiction book coming out, I jumped at the opportunity to read it.

The Spymistress is set during the Civil War. Lizzie Van Lew, a resident of Richmond, Virginia is a fierce supporter of the Union and works tirelessly to help the Union as best she can. She is able to create a network of fellow Northern sympathizers to provide Union leaders Confederate secrets and does what she can to offer the Union prisoners some small comforts while held captive in prison. She must do all this while also giving the outward appearance of supporting the Confederates so as not to find herself in jail.

I loved reading about Lizzie and all her efforts for a cause she completely believed in despite being surrounded by people with different views. Her mother and the slaves that lived in her house all worked tirelessly to support their cause. It was easy to feel the tension that mounted when she was almost caught numerous times while at the same time the joy when their underground network provided safe haven to escaped prisoners or learned of helpful secrets that were able to be passed along the top Union leaders.

I really like how Jennifer Chiaverini takes those lesser known figures from history that made an impact and tells their story. She did that with Elizabeth Keckley in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and she does it again with Lizzie Van Lew in The Spymistress. These are women that we should be learning about in history classes, yet I do not remember ever hearing their names before.

This book is definitely well-researched and it has left me wanting to read more about the Civil War. I admit that while I do remember learning about it, I am foggy on all the events leading up to it and the major battles that occurred during it. I'm now on the hunt for any historical fiction books that deal with the Civil War - please share if you know of any!

About the author: Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of numerous New York Times bestselling novels, including Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker and the Elm Creek Quilts series. A graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and two sons. 

The Spymistress will be published by Dutton Books on October 1, 2013. Below are some links where you can pre-order a copy:



  1. If you enjoy Civil War stories, you should read Lynn Austin's Refiner's Fire Trilogy.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion - I will check them out!

  2. Nice review! I'll definitely keep this one in mind. I've read most all the Elm Creek Series, but the two that stand out are the books about the slaves during the civil war, The Runaway Quilt and the Lost Quilter. Definitely her niche as a storyteller.

    1. I need to get back to the Elm Creek Quilt series, and now I'll be anxious to read the two you mentioned!

  3. I definitely want to read this one. I've already read a book with Elizabeth Van Lew in it and I hadn't heard of her till I picked up The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen which I read for book group. You might be interested in reading it. It is told from the perspective of a slave who is given her freedom by Elizabeth and she pays for Mary's education in Philadelphia. Mary later became a spy for the Union and the two of them were part of the same ring.

    It will be interesting to see how Chiaverini's portrayal of Elizabeth Van Lew compares to Lois Leveen's. It is too bad that women in history are so often ignored. I am glad that historical fiction brings their stories to light. Great review!

    1. I haven't heard about the Lois Leveen book but I will definitely check it out as it sounds very interesting.

  4. This sounds so good! Everything about this makes me want to read it, from the cover to your great review :)

  5. I've read this one and the Lois Leveen book. Both are very good. But there is another one that I think I liked even better. Try Miss Lizzie's War by Rosemary Agonito.
    You can read my review here.


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