Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender by Carrie Jones, illus by Mark Oldroyd

Guess what? I'm about to review a book I read on Net Galley. How cool is Net Galley? So. Cool. (As long as, y'know, the publishers give you permission to read the books you want to read so you can review them. But I digress.)

The full title of today's book is Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy, and it's by my good friend Carrie Jones. Yes, that Carrie Jones - the one who wrote Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend, Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape) and Girl, Hero and Need, Captivate, and Entice. And she is actually a friend, so you might expect me to be biased and I am, frankly, not going to tell you that you're wrong, because being biased under the circumstances is entirely logical. I am, however, going to tell you what I think about the book anyway, even with you knowing that I'm biased, and we'll go from there, okay? Okay.

The thing is, I was inclined to love this book before I read it, not because Carrie wrote it, but because of the following reasons:

1. I know a lot about the subject of the book. I did a shload of research on Sarah Emma Edmonds as part of a project I co-authored with J. Patrick Lewis (poems about spies and spying, still looking for a home).

2. I have a thing for girls in drag, as I believe I've mentioned before. And Sarah Emma Edmonds decidedly walked that walk.

3. I have a rather strong feminist bent, and nothing says feminist like Sarah Emma Edmonds (even if she died long before the actual word/movement exists). Grrl power!

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a fascinating individual. Born in Canada, she made her way to the United States alone, becoming so dedicated to the country that when the Civil War broke out, she decided to serve in the military. (What I didn't know until I read Carrie's book is that Edmonds had a history of dressing as a male that dated back to her childhood. Way interesting.) At that time in history, her being a woman should have made military service an impossibility, but Edmonds didn't let a little thing like gender hold her back: Dressed as a man named Frank Thompson, Edmonds enlisted as a private in the Union Army, where she was assigned to work as a nurse in field hospitals.

Looking for an opportunity to use her ability to wear disguises serve her country and hopefully decrease casualties, Edmonds volunteered to become a spy. She made several trips into Confederate territory to seek out military secrets, dressing first as a young African American male, then as a female Irish peddlar, and finally as an African American laundress. If Carrie's description sounds a little bit like something from the movie Victor/Victoria, it's understandable:

This time she pretended to be Bridget O'Shea, a chubby Irish peddlar. She was a woman (Sarah) pretending to be a man (Frank) pretending to be a woman (Bridget).

This would be confusing for most people, but not for Sarah.
As Edmonds herself said (and is quoted as saying in the book), "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic—but patriotism was the true secret of my success."

The book is due out on April 1st, just a hair too late for Women's History Month. With its evocative artwork and clear narration, the book manages to be a tribute not only to Edmonds, but to the power of imagination.

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