Monday, November 12, 2012

Spies Like Us: Women spies in history and fiction

Thinking about the women in my historical trilogy I call A More Perfect Union, I realized how similar they are to several young women I’ve researched for my recently re-released book, Hometown Heroines (True Stories of Bravery, Daring, and Adventure). The trilogy is set in Charles Towne, South Carolina at the end of the American Revolution. Each of my characters – Emily, Amy, and Samantha – have characteristics of young women who dared to spy and smuggle goods during the Civil War.
For example, my character Amy Abernathy is a vibrant young lady who loves to invent stories and isn’t afraid to use her feminine charms to, well, let’s say influence those around her. She sounds something like Mary Kate Patterson, known as Kate, shown in the picture below. Marian Herndon Dunn is acknowledged as the authority on Kate’s life and describes Kate as “vivacious” with “flashing brown eyes and bouncy dark brown curls.” [Ref. 1] The daughter of Dr. Hugh and Ellen T. Patterson, Kate was born in Warren County, Kentucky, in 1844. When she was about 6 years old, her family moved to Rashboro, Tennessee, outside of present day LaVergne.

During the Civil War, Mary Kate’s formal education was put on hold upon the declaration of war between the North and South in 1861, when she was 17. During the ensuing years, she helped her father smuggle morphine and quinine to the Confederate troops by concealing the drugs under her roomy riding habits. Her buggy had a false bottom where she hid boots and cavalry blankets, bridles, spurs, and whatever other large items she couldn’t readily hide beneath her skirts during the drive through enemy lines to the Rebels. She also would mount a horse and ride the seven to nine miles to Nashville to deliver items needed immediately.
            Here’s a snippet of Amy’s story, which shows something of her personality and determination:

“Amy, my dear, there you are!” Amy’s mother, Lucille Abernathy, hurried towards their little circle and fanned herself with her oriental silk fan. “I’ve searched high and low for you.”
“What’s the matter?” Amy asked. “I’ve been here all along.”
“We need to make another trip to the plantation on the morrow.” Her mother studied Amy’s expression until Amy had to forcefully resist squirming under the intense look. “Evelyn will soon deliver her child and she’ll need the supplies I’ve set aside for her.”
“Of course.” She could check on her sister’s welfare as well, given Walter Hamilton’s overbearing nature. Once the sentries allowed her to pass. She’d used the need to visit a sick grandmother she didn’t actually have. Then there was the tale of woe when they were supposedly starving and had to reach the plantation in order to gather the last of the squash in the fields. What could she tell them this time?
A thrill rippled through her at the prospect of daring the enemy soldiers to stop her passage out of the town. She loved the feeling of independence, of defiance in the face of danger, and of the power her appearance and flirtations gave her. Not that she was proud or smug about her looks, but she had enough young men pay her compliments to know that she was attractive to most of them. No matter that she put her life in danger each time she stuffed boots, epaulets, or maps under her voluminous skirt or inside her bodice. If caught, she knew hanging as a smuggler or worse a spy would be her fate. But if the men could do their part to fight for America’s freedom from British tyranny, then so could she.

Another character in the trilogy is Samantha McAlester, a healer and midwife who has a terrible secret she’s reluctant to reveal, but ultimately is forced to share with her friends, Amy and Emily Sullivan. Her determination and knowledge is informed by the real-life 17-year-old Civil War spy, Belle Boyd of West Virginia. Belle was renowned for her ability to slip past the enemy lines and acquire intelligence on the Union army movements she shared with the Confederate officers. She also worked in the hospitals to help the wounded Rebels after the fighting. Though she was caught several times, she ultimately avoided any long-term imprisonment or other punishment.
Thanks to young women like Mary Kate Patterson, Belle Boyd, and others, my characters have the strength to defend their cause as best they can using their talents and abilities. It’s also a great excuse to research earlier time periods and real people’s perspectives and aims in life. It does make me wonder how people will look back on our own times, what they will view in retrospect as our aims and wants today.

What would you like for people to say about you in the future? 

Ref. 1: Dunn, Marion Herndon. “The Unsinkable Mary Kate.” <i>Historical Review and Antique Digest</i>, Vol 3, No. 4, Winter, 1974.

Betty Bolté has written stories and reports all her life for fun, and for the last 20+ years professionally. Her credits include nonfiction books for young adult readers, including Dressage, Jumping, Foreign Language Clubs, and Hobby Clubs. Hometown Heroines (True Stories of Bravery, Daring, and Adventure) is a collection of YA historical fiction stories based on real girls, released in October 2012. In addition to young adult books, she has written several adult nonfiction books, many essays, and a newspaper column. (She really hopes to soon have historical romance titles to add to this bio, too! J) Visit her website for more information on her writing and her blog:


Meda White said...

Those women sound remarkable and brave. As far as how I'd like to be remembered, Pastor Chris Hodges at Church of the Highlands just finished a series entitled "Legacy."
The definition of the word is a gift or something that is handed down so in my mind it implies that leaving a legacy is a good thing. I want to be remembered as being loving and kind, a bright spot on the timeline of life.

M.V.Freeman said...

Interesting post. I like the resourcefulness of these women.

How I want to be remembered? For me, it's not how I want to be remembered--its more like, I want to know that my life was well lived.

Betty Bolte said...

Meda, I think that would be a wonderful way to be remembered! Leaving a loving legacy for others is a terrific goal.

Mary, living well is important, too. I think you're following that path with out any problem! Good for you.

I hope to leave something of myself in my writing, whether fiction or blogs like this. Something tangible, in a way, that lives on beyond my own existence.

Heather said...

Great post! This was really interesting