VIENNA, Va., October 17, 2012 — First a caveat. I rarely review historical fiction, regardless of the author’s merits, honors, etc., since oft times they are long on fiction and short on historical fact. And then I read “The Spy Lover” by Kiana Davenport, a novel set during the Civil War. Because of its beautiful writing structure and because the writing showed the author actually was familiar with the Civil War and its personages, I gave in and quickly found it was a page turner one could not lay down.
The novel emanates from Ms. Davenport’s own family history (again, sometimes a bad sign) since she had ancestors who fought in the War, who died from the War, and left her with an inalienable connection to it as she ferreted out the factual details of their service.
It was she who first introduced many of us to the concept of Chinese soldiers fighting in the Civil War, both on the side of the Union as well as with the Confederacy. Talk about eye opening!
Read my columns of September 27 and 29, 2012
The book begins in a prisoner of war camp, following Stonewall Jackson’s battle at Kernstown and not far down the road from Corinth in Mississippi. We find a young nurse, ministering to the young man who will become her lover.
Reduced to its simplest details, Era, a half-Chinese girl who has escaped slavery, watched her mother raped and killed, and is now a nurse in battlefield hospitals, falls in love with Warren R. Petticomb, a young Confederate soldier who has had one arm amputated.
Something about him forces Era to see and feel beyond the shield she has placed around herself. Their love gives him hope and self-confidence and brings a softness to her she thought was lost forever. And yet she will end up being a Union spy, without his knowledge, in an effort to obtain word as to her father’s whereabouts, promised to her by a Union officer to get her cooperation.
After being a Confederate soldier, her father, Johnny Tom, has been captured by the Federals and placed in an unknown prison, where his prejudiced keepers refer to him as “yellowskin” or “pigtail” and threaten to cut off his long queue of hair.
Switching, via chapters, from her thoughts and actions to Warren’s and then to her father’s can be confusing to the casual reader until you get the hang of it. Then the juxtaposed lives and thoughts of the principals make perfect sense. Era is keenly aware that she is of mixed blood, and in the 1860s during a war, discrimination is evident. The level of care for the wounded varies as well.
While this is not a biography or a history in any sense of the word, Davenport borrows heavily from the information she has gleaned about Cpl. John Tommy, a distant ancestor, as well as Warren Davenport, also an ancestor, whose real life exploits in the war add to her imagined situations in the book. The author has read numerous civil war books and histories, learning from various historians as well as noted author Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust.
Davenport is a rarity among Civil War fiction authors in that she has familiarized herself well with the war, its battles and leaders, and the episodes on both sides of the conflict, which are sometimes hard to decipher. But decipher them she does, as she tells the story of a woman and her lover, the conflict between her love, her conscience and her determination to locate her father.
It’s an epic tale, full of battles and skirmishes, a very unpopular general, as well as stories of the Southern women who are hired to grow poppies to obtain opium and morphine, the painkillers of choice in the under-supplied hospitals. Era is then forced to report the locales of those poppy fields to the Union officer or she will get no news of her father. Conscience and heart battle daily within the young woman, who is half Chinese and half Alibamo Creek Indian.
The author’s words flow languidly like a soft mountain stream, both in their rhapsodic tenor and the feelings of those she describes. You can literally sense the emotion in the lines, yet it saves itself from coming across as too flowery. Scenes pertaining to sex are handled like pictures seen behind a soft curtain, rather than adding a discordant note to the gentle telling of a story.
Davenport also writes with military precision. Battle scenes, particularly Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and its ensuing carnage, are obscenely beautiful to read. You will not forget them. Parts may be hard to read, but the truth is in the telling.
Kiana Davenport tells the story with the ease and thought you might expect at your grandmother’s knee, as anxious to explain and help you enjoy the story as she does in the telling, knowing full well that once having heard her tale, you will never forget it.
I have no hesitation in recommending “The Spy Lover” to anyone who enjoys stories of the Civil War, as well as genuine conflicts, love and dedication. Perhaps more for the distaff side than the men, it will go into a special niche of historical fiction and could likely become a classic like “Cold Mountain.”
Ms. Davenport, who lives in Hawaii, has been an NEA Fellow, a Bunting Fellow at Harvard University, and a Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University, commuting from her home in the Islands, where she has been aware of mixed race prejudice.
“The Spy Lover,” published by Thomas and Mercer Publishers, 300 pages; ISBN-13:9781612183411 and ISBN-10:1612183417
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