Author: Kiana Davenport
 
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
 
ISBN : 13: 9781612183411
          : 10: 1612183417
 

Grand, powerful, an epic; all the usual terms used to describe historical novels don’t express the emotions I felt when reading Kiana Davenport’s novel, The Spy Lover. Set against a landscape of the American Civil War, the writing has a clarity of style which makes the extreme suffering of both the Union and Confederate soldiers immediate and shocking. This seemingly non-fiction recounting of daily life while marching to, waiting for, engaging in and afterwards recovering from a battle is profoundly tragic in the loss of life and chaos surrounding the movement of troops, medical staff and civilians in a war where thousands of young men and the families they left behind died in cruel heart rending conditions. At times I felt as bereft and grief stricken as the characters in the story.

A counterpoint to the battle scenes of starvation and death is the exquisite stillness and beauty of the relationship which grows between Era Tom, a young nurse of mixed race (Chinese and American Indian) and Warren Petticomb, a Southern Cavalry Officer. Kiana Davenport’s characterizations of these two young people falling in love while caught up in events they have no control over is written with a lovely enchanting intensity.

The story has three narrators: Johnny Tom (Era’s father), Era and Warren. Johnny, Chinese born, arrives in America on a slave ship, escaping, he marries a Creek Indian woman. They settle in a small Chinese community in the American South and have a child, Era. Life is hard but they are happy and most importantly: free. The civil war begins and their village is raided by Confederate soldiers. Johnny, along with all the other men is forced to join the army. Aware that the South’s aim in fighting the war is the continuation of slavery, Johnny defects to the North’s Union army (as do other Chinese men) in the hope that if he survives the war he will be granted American citizenship. In retribution for Chinese defections the Confederate army burn Chinese settlements, raping and killing the women. Era’s mother is hung by soldiers and, aged eighteen, she escapes the murderous rampages by joining the Confederate Army as a nurse.

Desperate to find her father, Era is enlisted by the Union Army to spy on the Confederates while acting as a nurse for the ever growing number of wounded. Warren, recovering from the amputation of his arm, falls under the spell of her graceful exotic beauty. Troubled by guilt at the duplicity of her actions in spying for the North, Era, tries to resist but can’t stop the deep attraction she feels for Warren.

The narrative switches between Era and Warren’s love to Johnny Tom’s experience of Union Army life. A truly heroic man, he is determined to live to be reunited with his family. Initially treated with racist contempt, he wins the loyalty and respect of his fellow soldiers who come to love him and his efforts to ensure they survive. In any war luck has to be on your side and for a while Johnny Tom, Era and Warren share a miraculous amount of it. Ever fickle, luck can’t be relied upon and dramatic events follow that make the future look grim. Fascination in the detail, the story moves on at a great pace as the Civil War rages, finally petering out in a ghastly litany of death and suffering, survivors left struggling to understand what it was about and if anything really changed for the better.

The story doesn’t end when the Civil War stops; in the aftermath of the war Chinese immigrants in Nevada and San Francisco are massacred - their crime: being hard working and law abiding. These racist actions were especially appalling as Chinese men, in both armies, fought loyally and bravely for their adopted country.

Reading The Spy Lover engendered feelings of horror and hope. Horror, at the waste of almost an entire generation of young men for little result and the shameful murders of Chinese immigrants. Hope, that stories like The Spy Lover will help us all, no matter what color, creed or race to live together in enduring peace. I commend this book to your attention; it’s a wonderful read.                  


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