Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen AbbottLiar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Published by Harper Collins on 9/2/2014
Source: Publisher
Pages: 528
Buy from IndieBound


As the former capital of the Confederacy, my city of Richmond, Virginia has a history that I’m very interested in, even if it didn’t always take the stance I agree with. I’ve done my fair share of historical tours, usually when I have family visiting from out of town, which have made me feel quite knowledgeable of my adopted little city and its past. Cue Karen Abbott with her ability to throw me off!

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is Karen Abbott’s newest non-fiction book, which focuses on four women who risked their lives to take part in the Civil War as spies. Abbott’s women came from both sides of the war and worked in various ways; undercover as a Union soldier, as a Confederate courier, and deeply engaged in Northern affairs to gather information for the South. Then there was Elizabeth Van Lew, a member of Richmond’s high society with the heart of her Northern bloodline.



I was already thrilled to be reading familiar street names, but stopped dead in my tracks at the mention of Church Hill. Elizabeth Van Lew lived in my neighborhood. I nearly had my shoes on with determination to find that mansion, but figured I should probably do a bit more reading first. Even without the Richmond connection, Elizabeth’s story was easy to get lost in as she seemed to cross so many lines we tend to see as solidly drawn. Though she was born in Richmond, her father sent her to Philadelphia to be taught in a Quaker school, which solidified her liberal upbringing. Back in Richmond by the time the Civil War broke out, Elizabeth was destined to take part in aiding the Union, despite her Confederate surroundings.

Sadly, the Van Lew house was demolished by the City of Richmond in the early 1900’s along with the Ballard House Hotel, which was also featured in the book. Though Elizabeth’s house is gone, a historical marker now stands outside the school that took it place just a few blocks from my house. Without Karen Abbott’s book, it’s likely I would have never noticed the sign or heard of Elizabeth’s amazing story. Along with being a well-researched, interesting look at several women involved in the Civil War, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy allowed me to get a closer look at the history right in my backyard.

van lew


Have you ever discovered a connection to a book while reading?

  • I think I need a copy of this book, just for the title. but reading your review has convinced me to read it as well. :P

    • The title is so great and actually really fits the book instead of just being a winded explanation (which seems to happen so often with non-fiction).

  • I’ve got this on my “before the end of 2014” TBR list! I had to break out a sub-list from my larger TBR list :) Looking forward to all the Richmond references as well!

  • I’ve got a review copy of this book on the way, and I CAN’T WAIT to read it! The true story of ladies breaking the rules to fight for what they believe in, at a time when they were just expected to mind the house and pop out babies?! I’m sold.

    It’s so cool that you have a personal connection to this book! One of my favorite books as a teen took place in a fictional town located near my actual hometown — it mentioned a road I knew, and our mall, which I thought was pretty cool.

    • Isn’t it so fun to see familiar landmarks in books? It’s nice to be able to create fictional settings for yourself, but there’s just something really exciting about being able to note places you know so well.

  • This does sound good . . . particularly in light of the recent novels about women fighting as men in the Civil War (Neverhome by Laird Hunt and I Shall be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe.) Interesting that these would all be released in a single year!

    My most enjoyable recent connection to a book came with The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin, which is about Anne Lindbergh, and includes, of course, the famous kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. I live only a few miles from the Lindbergh estate that was the site of the kidnapping . . . the estate is owned by the state of NJ and generally not open to the public. The house is used, believe it or not, as a juvenile detention facility. I have actually been trying to tour the house for a decade (long before I read The Aviator’s Wife). This year, I finally got the chance, and it was absolutely fascinating!

    • It is really interesting that so many of the books are coming out at the same time (and I’ve actually seen one or two more schedule for next year, too).

      Such a cool story about the Lindbergh estate! I bet it was so interesting to see, especially in light of how its now being used.

  • Amazing!

  • Karen White

    I actually got to narrate this title – Abbott did such a great job of bringing these women to life that it felt more like recording historical fiction than history! Rose, who starts out in D.C. actually ends up in Wilmington, NC (my current home town). I am inspired to keep my eye out for a historical sign with her story on it…

    • Now I really want to hear the audio version! She really did do such a great job pulling together all the documents to make it really narrative. It could have been super dry, but all of the women completely came to life.

      • Karen White

        She definitely made my job easier.

  • Seriously, you need to get out of my head! I just finished a book that I discovered halfway through was set in Buffalo, NY where I lived for almost a decade. It’s fiction but still it is such a weird feeling to have a sense of place with a book.

    • I felt that way when I read Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters, too! It was like going back home to Detroit…it’s very strange, but it’s great when they do it right.

  • Cool! I love making those connections when reading, especially when it’s a real-life connection (i.e. not fictional… though those can be fun, too!). Love!!

  • Kim Ukura

    This is really neat! I loved books that are set in places I’m familiar with, especially when it’s done well. I started this one awhile ago, but thought it was a little slow to get started. I’m hoping to pick it up again soon.

  • Words for Worms

    I read The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini earlier this year which was a fictional account of Elizabeth Van Lew’s life (and totally thought of you with the Richmond connection.) I was hooked! I definitely need to pick this up, Lizzie is my kind of lady!

    • Oh, I remember you mentioning that book and I didn’t connect the dots!! Now I’m really excited about it :)

  • I really look forward to checking out this book! Doesn’t she have a second Historic Sign by the Bell Tower on the sidewalk outside Capitol Square? (9th street side)

  • That’s so awesome! I loved this book and would definitely stop by the marker if I’m ever in the area :)

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