Sunday, July 5, 2009

Secrets of Civil War Spies

It's been a while since a book made me stay up late at night thinking, "Just one more chapter..." Codes hidden in invisible ink, women disguised as male soldiers, capture as a spy - and all for the cause of freeing every American. Who wouldn't love Secrets of Civil War Spies by Nancy LeSourd?

Part of the Liberty Letters series, Secrets of Civil War Spies is the fictional correspondence between two young ladies: Molly, who, although she's in Confederate territory, simply cannot reconcile slavery with the gospel, and Em, whose been living life as a boy in order to escape her abusive father and make a living on her own.

Molly and Em are friends, and Molly has always kept Ems disguise a secret. But when Em joins the Union army, Molly is afraid her friend cannot possibly escape discovery - or death. Em becomes a nurse (a role primarily played by men in the 1860s), and then a Union spy. When Molly finds she can no longer support slavery, she becomes a spy for the Union, also. Eventually, Molly is arrested by the Union for - they believe - being a Confederate spy. Molly cannot tell them the truth without risking the lives of everyone else in her spy ring - ordinary citizens such as a dry goods man and a letter carrier. Fortunately, Em is stationed nearby and helps Molly escape and return home to her mother and sister.

The best part of this page turner is that it's so heavily based on fact. Molly gives aid at a home-made Confederate hospital run by Sally Tompkins; it has an amazingly low death rate for the era. Sally Tompkins was a real person who did, indeed, run an excellent hospital with only 73 deaths in four years. Molly learns how to run coded messages in invisible ink with Elizabeth Van Lew, also a real woman who ran a spy ring for the Union during the war. And the entire character of Em is based upon Emma Edmonds, who did actually disguise herself as a man and serve in the Union army. The author does a nice job of sticking close to Emma's own account of her life, and in a not to readers, makes it clear what is fact in her adventure-filled novel. There's even a section in the back with photos of the real-life players in the book.

What I Like: Everything! This is really a superb book. If it weren't clearly marketed to kids, it could easilybe sold as a book for adults. The author does a terrific job of making Civil War times come to life, and weaves in Christian themes flawlessly.

Although she never defends the Confederate cause, her Confederates are drawn with some sympathy, as human beings who believe they must stick together. Many characters, Confederate and Union, are Christians, and are shown seeking refuge with the Lord as they endanger their lives - and sometimes finally give them up. Both Molly and Em do their best to see to the physical and spiritual needs of fallen soldiers on both sides. And this is not a case where Christian beliefs were forced upon historical characters. Em's own book (published in the 19th century) clearly states her strong faith in Christ, and Sally Tompkin also was an outspoken Christian woman.

The author states that one of her goals in writing this book was to illustrate how girls and young women can make bold choices to help others and shape the course of human history. In Secrets of Civil War Spies, she's met her goal well.

What I Dislike: Nothing, really, although I felt the book ended a bit abruptly - perhaps because I was enjoying it so much and didn't want it to end.

Overall Rating: Excellent.

Age Appeal: According to the publisher, 9 - 12, but older kids and adults will enjoy this book, too.

Publisher Info: Zonderkidz, 2008; ISBN: 978-0310713906; paperback, $7.99

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Special Info: There's lots of great historical information, videos, photos, and more at the author's website.

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