Desert Isle Keeper
Only Call Us Faithful
The most successful Union spy of the Civil War wasn’t a dashing gentleman on horseback, or a Yankee femme fatale to match the Confederacy’s glamorous Belle Boyd. It was middle-aged Richmond socialite Liza Van Lew, whose achievements included placing a spy in the Confederate White House, absconding with and secretly burying the body of a Union officer, and facilitating a mass breakout from Richmond’s Libby Prison. This outstanding novel, meticulously researched and beautifully written, is her story. It is a great read for anybody interested in the Civil War, in gender history, or in a riveting adventure story starring a marvelously dedicated, competent, and engaging heroine.
The novel is told in two time periods: Civil War, and the indefinite present. In the war sections, various narrators explain how Liza became a Union agent and tell the stories of her successes and failures. In the “present,” Liza the ghost haunts present-day Richmond with other Civil War figures and assesses how they have been remembered into the present day. Both plots unfold in sequence but are interspersed with each other, giving the book something of the feel of a play. Civil War Liza goes from abolitionist to charitable prison visitor to spymistress; Ghost Liza observes a convention of modern Confederates and one of their party games, the quest to identify the ideal of Southern womanhood. (Amusingly, they pick the fictional Scarlett O’Hara.)
I liked and admired Civil War Liza. Her moral compass is strong, and she achieves a great deal at great risk and cost to herself, but she never comes across as absurdly superhuman or moralizing. Her greatest and most sophisticated disguise is being an exaggerated version of herself in plain sight: “Crazy Bet,” the disheveled spinster who inexplicably freed all the family slaves and wants to manifest her frustrated maternal instincts caring not, as a good Southern lady would, for wounded Confederates, but the Yankees filling up Libby Prison. A complete amateur, Liza both admits to and grieves over her many mistakes and missed opportunities, feelings which struck me very strongly every time I remembered that the stories are mostly true.
Both Lizas are compelling narrators, but Ghost Liza in particular stands out as she ruefully observes how history has treated the people she knew and admired (like the inaccurate branding of Ulysses S. Grant as a drunk) and Southern Unionists like her and her network (by ignoring and denying them.) Ghost Liza turns the book into a fascinating work of historiography as well as a ripping good story, with great insights into the nature of the war and the South. Neither Ghost Liza nor the author has any patience for Confederate nostalgia and the postwar myth of “The War of Northern Aggression” fought over states’ rights. In just one example of the author’s excellent prose, Ghost Liza observes:
“Therein lay the great Southern dilemma. There was a corpse in the mansion, and half the neighborhood was holding its nose. But every summer the coffin was filled to bursting with sugar and cotton and tobacco and rice; every day it spilled out favors and comforts… What was a gentleman to do then, or a lady? Sigh a little, and fetch a shovel, and give it all up? Or did one scatter more and always stranger perfumes? Build walls and altars all around the smelly thing? Tell us it was sacred, it was the cornerstone and heart of Southern life? Treat criticism the same as blasphemy, and pass laws against the very sense of smell?
And afterward, when blood and fire took the temple down tell us all, Oh, that old thing? We were just about to get rid of it ourselves.”
In terms of historical accuracy, I would classify Only Call Us Faithful with works like The Killer Angels. If you see real historical figures, their personalities and actions generally match the historical record, provided one exists. For instance, Liza and her spy ring did in fact exhume and secretly rebury the body of Union officer Ulric Dahlgren, and the escape from Libby Prison proceeds in the novel as described by some of the escapees. Occasionally, fictional people will appear, and the author takes liberties to develop characters such as Mary Bowser, about whom little is known. (A freed slave of the Van Lews, Bowser took a servant position in Jefferson Davis’s White House in order to spy and was declared by Liza to be her best source of information.)
As a historian, I’m incredibly picky in my non-romance historical fiction. It has to be good enough to justify reading it instead of non-fiction work on the same topic. Only Call Us Faithful is not just an absorbing novel about a worthy and unusual heroine. It’s also damn good history.