Title: Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Author: Karen Abbott
Page Count: 513 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Collective Biographies
Tone: Dramatic, Richly Detailed, Compelling
One of the most fascinating yet little-known aspects of the Civil War is illuminated in the stories of four courageous women — a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow — who risked everything to take on a life of espionage. Their adventures comprise a fascinating quartet of determination and intrigue from both sides of the battle lines.
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
Questions composed by MPPL Staff
1. How many in the group recall learning about Belle Boyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, or Sarah Emma Edmonds prior to this book? Given their individual stories, is that surprising? Why do you think this is?
2. Author Karen Abbott specifically did not want to write about a single individual, instead repeatedly calling on the word tapestry to describe the weaving of multiple stories. Why do you think she chose these four women specifically?
3. Which of the four primary characters most fascinated you or elicited the strongest connection for you? Why? How might you guess Abbott herself answered this question? [Click here to find out.]
4. What factors might influence how we respond to each character? Did the affiliation with North or South matter to you? Personality? Circumstances? Traditional bias toward how women should behave?
5. For each of the four women, what were the most memorable escapades? How effective was each in advancing her cause?
6. Did you feel you had good sense of what in their pasts led these women to these roles? Did any surprise you?
7. What made the women more effective as spies than their male counterparts?
8. How did the women turn societal assumptions or traditions regarding gender to their advantage?
9. How would you describe each character’s relationships with the men in their lives?
10. Which of the supporting characters made an impression? For instance, what did you think of the parts played by Jerome Robbins or Mary Bowser?
11. Is each word in the title intended to correspond to one of the women, or does it hold a different message?
12. How effective is the title in drawing a reader? In establishing a tone for the writer’s approach?
13. The author’s intention was that this history read like a novel. How successful was she? What qualities support or contradict that intent?
14. What is gained by intertwining the four stories in a chronological structure? Would you have preferred to focus on one character at a time in four sections?
15. Abbott begins with the assurance that everything is factual, drawn from primary sources. Some readers question whether this can be true, even if that were her intention. What do you think? Does the issue affect your experience of the book?
16. Most everyone studies the Civil War, but hardly any are taught about Civil War spies, much less women as spies. Why not? What is the value of history instruction beyond battles and traditional leaders? Would you argue for better inclusion of stories like these in general histories?
17. Would you argue that this book holds appeal for both male and female readers? Why or why not? How do you feel about this?
18. Karen Abbott enjoys writing about unconventional women in history who break the rules. If you have read her other accounts (Sin in the Second City, American Rose), how would you say this work compares?
19. Abbott’s next work is a novel about a real-life female con artist in the Gilded Age. Would you follow her into historical fiction? How do you think she’ll do?
Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!
official website of author Karen Abbott
BookTV videorecording of Karen Abbott at the 2015 Savannah Book Festival
a Los Angeles Times review wonders why not call this work historical fiction
New Republic explores the controversy of sexist criticism
National Women’s History Museum profile of Belle Boyd
Smithsonian special report on “Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy”
a Civil War Trust biography of Sarah Emma Edmonds
official Rebel Rose website
Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War by H. Donald Winkler
The Spymistress: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini
Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts