The Spy Lover lingered on the top of my must-read pile for months, mainly because I just needed a break from the death and destruction of war (seems to be my reading theme for too much of this year!). I wasn’t wrong to be afraid: set during the U.S. Civil War, the horrific, insanity-inducing body count looms large on almost every page, making the haunting, multi-layered love stories that much more precious and lasting. That love – between family, friends, lovers – can outlast the man-made evils of war is stunning testimony to the human capacity to nurture, bond, and survive.
Johnny Tom, who escapes famine and death in his native China, arrives in the new world only to be repeatedly enslaved. From the spirit-breaking labor of the Hawai’i sugar plantations, he escapes to the mainland, only to be kidnapped and shipped to New Orleans where he is offered up on the auction block as a cheaper alternative to black slaves. His brief respite as a free man, contentedly sharing life with his hapa Native American wife and their daughter, is stolen from him when the Civil War breaks out, and the town’s men are conscripted to serve in the Confederate Army. Refusing to fight for slavery, he defects to the Union side, answering promises that his loyalty will be rewarded with citizenship upon victory. He stays alive talking story, managing to turn away from the racist barrages, concentrating on nurturing the weaker and younger with his tales of travel, relationships, and survival when nothing else is left.
In another camp, Johnny’s teenage daughter has escaped her own slaughter, only to witness to thousands and thousands of unthinkable tragedies. Thinking the only way to find her father will be through her own military service, Era Tom is caregiver, comforter, savior … and spy. She tends to the Confederate wounded with genuine empathy and selfless caring, even as she gathers intelligence for the other side. She will not serve the slavers, and yet she will do everything she can to keep their butchered boys alive. When she falls headlong in love with a soldier whose mangled arm she helps to remove then hopes to heal, she must somehow find a way to justify heart, mind, and soul with her traitorous emotions …
Relying on her own ancestral history, bestselling Hawai’i author Kiana Davenport renders a little-known, vital moment of American history and bears testimony to its remarkable Chinese American survivors. When the Civil War finally ended, the U.S. government abandoned Chinese and Chinese American soldiers, revoking their promise of citizenship. Post-Civil War, Chinese Americans fell victim to one of the most virulently racist, anti-Asian periods in American history, marked by murderous purgings of whole communities throughout the American West. Racism became institutionalized, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which remained legal until 1943, but effectively enforced until 1965 when race-based immigration quotas finally lifted. Not until 2003 – almost 150 years! – were Civil War soldiers of Chinese descent recognized very posthumously with citizenship; the descendants, as Davenport notes, are still denied veteran pensions.
History – often presented via sterilized facts and surreal figures – always becomes more real with names and faces attached. Davenport vividly journeys coast-to-coast with her fearsome ancestors, stopping in some of the most gruesome, blood-soaked battlefields, and to dream and hope in some of the most majestic open frontiers. Their intertwined stories beckon … you merely need to turn the page and listen in.