The Spy Lover
The Spy Lover is a refreshing story of the journey of people of mixed ancestry through the American Civil War. Era Tom was born of two slaves, her mother of European/Native/African American parentage, and her father a Chinese immigrant who escaped his own chains. Era has lost her mother to brutalities waged on their small Southern community trying to stay clear of the raging war. She’s desperate to find her father, Johnny Tom, who has deserted to the Northern side. Era agrees to work as a nurse in a Confederate camp while spying for the Union, in return for news of and from her father.
Complications arise as she assists at her first amputation and falls deeply in love with its survivor, cavalry soldier Warren Petticomb. Meanwhile, Johnny Tom survives and even flourishes at his post, forming his own makeshift family even as he longs for news of his women. Told in the viewpoints of Era, Johnny, and Warren, the story follows crucial turning points of the war through battles, prisoner-of-war camps, and letters written during brief interludes of peaceful reflection. Post-war years are more quickly covered until the lovers finally face the defining moment of their past.
With captivating characterizations and beautifully rendered prose – on Warren’s listening to a lieutenant read Shakespeare: “the sounds of the words pass through me with satisfying ravishment” – The Spy Lover makes for absorbing reading. But its last third suffers from an unfortunate surrender to a few of the consolations of Lost Cause advocates, just as the weight of its own language and mounting carnage folds in on itself.