Literary

Literary

America’s Opium War

A Chinese soldier and his mixed-blood daughter are at the center of this unflinching novel of the Civil War

Literary / Let us now praise the woman warrior. For too many years–centuries, actually–writing about war has been a man’s game. And for too many years, reading war fiction has been about as deep an experience as watching a couple of boys play with toy soldiers. Aside from the diligent recreation of Gettysburg in The Killer Angels, it’s usually only the anti-heroic stuff, such as Catch-22, A Thin Red Line, and the Waterloo sequence in War and Peace, that rises above the level of pulp. Americans like their war safely sentimentalized, or even better, played on a game console with plenty of cool special effects.

But merely having a woman author isn’t what makes The Spy Lover, a novel about the Civil War that follows the fortunes of a Chinese infantryman for the Union, Johnny Tom, his daughter Era and Warren, her Confederate lover and patient, so memorable. Sure, it may come as a surprise to her fans that our own Kiana Davenport, who made her bones on sweeping Hawaiian family melodramas like The Shark Dialogues, Song of Exile and House of Many Gods, has written a book steeped in gore, misery, death, drug addiction and bereavement. But the shock is in Davenport’s writing and material.

Like the best historical fiction, the book’s deep research is felt in every line and authenticates every character, no matter how strange or shocking, yet comes across as naturally as breathing. In this The Spy Lover easily joins and even surpasses Cold Mountain and our national real estate love triangle, Gone With the Wind.

Thus, when one-armed cavalryman Warren Davenport (based on one of the author’s Confederate relatives) rides into yet another battle that will resemble a charnel house, he swallows an opium ball to control his pain and his bowels, then “. . . feels the tightening in his buttocks and his testicles as war brings him into its full scrutiny.”

Thus, when his nurse and lover, the Chinese-Native American-Caucasian spy Era Tom, comes upon the mutilated corpses of two women murdered after a gang rape, “she moves closer and examines their fingernails. Under one woman’s nails she finds not skin but bits of cloth. The dark blue wool of Federal uniforms. It could have been the same troopers who escorted her here.” Yet she continues to spy for the Union.

Davenport has never been one to accept limitations, or abide by other’s people’s rules for what a part-Hawaiian, part-haole should write about. Her elan serves her well here, whether summoning the racial hysteria of the South coupled to its unyielding code of valor, or describing the endless carnage of the (painstaking recreated) battlefields. Her depiction of the lives of women during the war, as well as those of mixed race, goes some way towards remedying a century-long gap in the historical, fictional record.

The Spy Lover

Kiana Davenport

Thomas & Mercer, 2012, 300 pages, softcover, $14.95