When we read, we look for ourselves in the words. If we are unable or uninspired to find ourselves there, the words remain meaningless to us. The stories they convey become “throwaway” experiences, never to revisit our minds, never to summon our memories. But if we “become” the old man in Hemingway’s sea; if we “are” Daisy to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, then literature “is” who we are, or at least, points to whom we might have been, or can be—it is the indelible yardstick against which we measure ourselves. Author Francis Hamit’s “Shenandoah Spy,” a novel of historical fiction based on the true story of Belle Boyd, a legendary female spy for the Confederacy during America’s Civil War, was one of those stories that metamorphosed into a subjective experience for me, and to such an extent that it was surprising to me—surprising and satisfying. Let me tell you why.
Although I often read and write about history, the Civil War of the United States is not high on my list of subjects; not because it isn’t fascinating in its own right, but rather that it holds less weight for me than other histories such as that of America’s native people, the Great Depression, and World War II. My interest in “Shenandoah Spy,” however was sparked by a social media interchange with its author, an informed and shrewd interchange on his part in response to a posting I submitted on Facebook on the 35th anniversary of the Kent State Shootings in protest against the Vietnam War. I looked him up and discovered that he has an extensive background in military intelligence and espionage, a résumé I thought he might put to good use in the stories about which he writes. I ordered the book because of its “first-born” chronology in his body of work rather than its subject. But somewhere deep inside me, I also wanted to be “swayed” by a good Civil War story; I wanted to be brought into the fold. Hamit did not disappoint me on that point in “Shenandoah Spy.”
How is it that in 2015, a reader in the senior years of her life (me) can be transported to a time a century-and-a-half ago and relate to a heroine of only seventeen-years-of-age (Belle Boyd)? The answer is found in Hamit’s presentation of Belle Boyd’s story. He makes room for the reader in the words. He writes with such intimacy and immediacy that it invites the reader to wonder how he/she would have behaved in Boyd’s stead. The reader suffers Boyd’s vulnerabilities; staggers in her exploits; quakes in her boots. And just as importantly for me, this author instilled in me a desire to pay closer attention to this era of my country’s history.
Despite my delight in “Shenandoah Spy,” conversely, an aspect of it niggles at my consciousness. Given that it takes place during, and in response to, the “slave-era” of America’s story, a supporting cast of African Americans is to be expected. There can be no such story absent that body of humanity. Hamit isn’t shy about offering a view of the Civil War as one less about “freeing the slaves” and more about other factors, though. The following conversation between characters Brodhead and Strother in the book illustrates this point: ‘“Not for freeing the slaves?” [asks Broadhead]. Strother had to think about it. “In time, on some abstract level, I might be, but this isn’t the way I’d choose to do it. Most people in the South don’t own slaves. They’ve been seduced into this thing by radical elements that wanted to break up the country, and seized upon the activities of the Abolitionists as an excuse.” “And those Abolitionists have stirred up the war fever on this side. Radicals on both sides have pushed this war into being. It could have been prevented.” Brodhead gestured with his hands as if to illustrate the futility of it all. Strother nodded. “The rich and privileged wanted a war and the rest of us will pay for it.”’
In an excerpt further on in the story, Strother states. ‘“…Most Negroes [in the south] ain’t that displeased with their lot in life. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was a masterful load of horse manure when it came to representing the usual situation. You don’t abuse slaves, any more than you would a horse or a cow. It’s not good business and people frown on it. House servants especially have an easy life. They become a part of the family.”’ In that vein, Belle Boyd submits that the Yankees “…exaggerate the colored folks capacity and desire for freedom – those that want it find a way to buy themselves free.”’ Her personal slave Eliza is depicted as one such happy “servant.” Not only does Eliza aid and abet Boyd willingly in her daily life and her spying missions, she is depicted as a personal “friend” rather than as a slave of her mistress. Of course, Hamit puts forth the then self-serving point of view of southerners in his treatise. Following Solomon Northrup’s true story of cruelty suffered at the hands of a slave-owner in “Twelve Years a Slave” that found light in recent times, the portrayal of the master/slave relationship in “Shenandoah Spy” is difficult to reconcile. I suppose, as in any other human enterprise, the minutiae of America’s Civil War ranged every possibility available at the time. Many of those fine points are to be found in “Shenandoah Spy.” It is good reading.