Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review of The Shenandoah Spy

Title: The Shenandoah Spy
Author: Francis Hamit
Price: $18.95
Genre: Historical fiction, US Civil War
ISBN: 978-1-50595-902-7
Point of Sale: Amazon / Publishers’ site

I became aware of Francis Hamit via his online discussions about publishing with the science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle. I’ve always had an interest in history, so I decided to take a chance on Hamit’s book The Shenandoah Spy. I’m truly glad I did.

Hamit’s book is a novel about a real person, Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd. Seventeen when the war started, she was a Confederate sympathizer living in Martinsburg Virginia (now part of West Virginia). The historical record is somewhat hazy, but it’s known for a fact that Belle could ride and shoot, and was quite charming. She used these attributes to become a spy and scout for the Confederacy. Her most famous episode was a dash while under Union rifle fire to deliver a report to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. This report was critical to him winning a battle at the town of Front Royal, and earned her a commendation.

Writing about a Confederate hero risks being seen as a sympathizer to a very bad cause, but Hamit is quite clearly not a sympathizer. His novel highlights a number of the failures and moral flaws of the Confederacy, but avoids being preachy. Shenandoah Spy covers the period in Belle’s life from July 1861 to July 1862. During this period, referred to as the Valley Campaign by historians, Jackson with 17,000 men kept a Union force of some 60,000 occupied, preventing them from capturing the Shenandoah Valley (a prime breadbasket for the South) or attacking Richmond.

Belle in particular and the well-organized Confederate Secret Service in general kept Jackson informed of Union operations, and ran rings around the Union counterintelligence operation. Hamit tells this story in an entertaining fashion from several perspectives, including David Strother, an artist and cousin of Belle’s, who served as a Union army officer.

The novel is told in straight chronological order, which leads to a bit of a deliberate start, but the interesting bits come on soon enough. Hamit’s prose is clear and serviceable, rendering the various regional dialects in a clear and readable manner. In The Shenandoah Spy Hamit focuses quite a bit on the motivations of the characters, which he handles convincingly.

He also works these motivations into a discussion of why the South lost, and why they should have lost. For example, early on, Belle serves as a volunteer nurse in a hospital. Despite the clear and desperate need to keep wounded Confederate soldiers alive, this work is considered scandalous by Belle’s peers, who shun her while refusing to assist. The work is simply considered beneath a white woman’s dignity.

I found The Shenandoah Spy a delightful and fascinating book, and recommend it highly.


Chris Gerrib is a resident of Villa Park, IL and Director of Technology for a Chicago-area bank. Chris is the author of the science fiction novel The Mars Run. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University and is past president of the Rotary Club of Darien, IL.

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