Karen Abbott, "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War" (Harper, 2014)


If group biography is one of the exciting new trends in life-writing (and some say it is), Karen Abbott- the historian, not to be confused with the novelist-proves one of its deftest practitioners- first, in her debut Sin in the Second City, then in the follow-up American Rose (which we discussed back in 2012) and now in her new book: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War (Harper, 2014). Tracking four women- two Confederates and two Unionists- across battle lines, continents and even, at times, genders, with great verve Abbott weaves together a series of stories, connected by the conflict in which they are occurring and yet also uniquely each women's own. The story of the American Civil War has been told umpteen times, but it is an unexpected element within the familiar which Abbott is concerned with exploring here. Tales of our heroines- Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds,Rose O'Neale Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew, all women most readers will be encountering for the first time- yield an untraditional perspective on women's participation in the war whilst Abbott also gives fresh life to well-known figures: Stonewall Jackson, painted here in broad vivid colors, emerges from the familiar tapestry in his full, eccentric glory almost as a character born anew. Reviewing her first book, USA Today labeled Abbott a "pioneer of sizzle history." It's a label that's stuck and one which is apt for a mode of story-telling driven by such a propulsive kinetic energy, as Abbott's is. But it's important to note that the stories she's telling are sturdy, thoroughly researched and culturally necessary. The word "sizzle" can imply a frothy effervescence, a flash in the pan, and these stories- the stories of these four women in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy and in her other books- are anything but.

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