Kiana Davenport’s The Spy Lover is a Civil War novel with a twist. What makes this one different is its focus on the wartime contributions of Johnny Tom, a Chinese immigrant, and Era, his copper-skinned daughter. It is common knowledge that a large number of immigrants participated in the American Civil War, but amateur historians generally think of countries like Ireland, Germany, England, and Scotland as their countries of origin. Few would ever consider China in this context.
Johnny Tom did not have an easy time of it after being snatched from his homeland and forced to work on the construction of America’s first intercontinental railroad. Indeed, he was lucky to survive the experience and make his escape from the railroad work gang to start a new life for himself in a tiny Mississippi village. Years later, Johnny’s world is ripped apart again when he is forcibly separated from his wife and daughter and conscripted into the Confederate Army. But, in the confusion of battle – and all the while praying that his family is still alive - Johnny defects to the Union Army in hopes of winning American citizenship.
Despising the Confederacy as much as her father despises it, Era agrees to work as a Confederate camp nurse in order to gather information she can trade to Union generals for word of her father. Although the information is surprisingly easy to get, the process grows complicated when Era falls in love with a one-armed Confederate cavalryman she nurses back to health.
The Spy Lover pulls no punches. War is brutal and ugly, and the American Civil War was most certainly no exception to the rule despite the romantic connotations so often attached to it. Davenport, in one graphic scene after the other, describes the horrors of the surgeon’s tent, recovery wards, battlefields, and life on the Southern home front. She explores the impact of slavery on not only the slaves, but on the character and psyche of their owners. She recounts the rampant racism that existed in all parts of the United States during a period in which immigrants from around the world often fought each other for a limited number of jobs. The sheer ugliness of the picture she paints is a vivid reminder that the “good old days” are not necessarily good for everyone who lives them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will point out that, even though I have read Civil War history and fiction for more than four decades, I still tend to see the conflict through Southern eyes. That tendency, however, is only part of the reason I find some of the author’s characterization of Southern culture and soldiers to be more stereotypical than realistic. For example, every slave-owner in the book resembles Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree. These men delight in beating even the children of their slaves almost to death at the least slight or offense. Even more surrealistic is the author’s contention that, toward the end of the war, Southern troops - much in the manner of Chinese soldiers of the Korean War – commonly got high on chunks of opium called “bull’s eyes” before marching into battle. But, despite opium and morphine being more available to Union doctors, not once do I recall a similar reference to Union troops using the drug for that purpose.
I point this out because the message of The Spy Lover would have been more effectively delivered via a realistic, and even-handed, approach to the two sides doing battle. As it is, the novel requires a suspension of disbelief from me that somewhat lessens its impact. That said, those who read it will not soon forget The Spy Lover, and more casual fans of Civil War fiction are likely to enjoy it very much.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)