My Thoughts: I like when authors take a person who was just a tiny blip on the historical radar and crafts an entire story about them. I LOVE when they do it well. Lois Leveen weaves an exceptional story about Mary Bowser, a slave who is freed by her owner and offered the opportunity to get an education, and who returns to slavery as a spy in the household of Jefferson Davis order to advance the goal of abolishing the detestable practice.
Despite being born into slavery, Mary is given a loving upbringing by her mother Minerva who is also a slave in the household and her father who serves as a blacksmith to a cruel owner in town. Bet, the daughter of the family who owns Mary and Minerva is quite unconventional and believes whole-heartedly in the abolitionist cause. It is she who buys all the slaves on the estate from her mother and frees them. Unfortunately she is not able to do the same for Mary's father which forces the family into a hard decision. Not wanting to force Mary to give up on her dreams of an education, Minerva stays behind with Mary's father and Mary sets off for a new life in Philadelphia. It is there that she is swept up in the abolitionist cause and becomes a key player in gathering intelligence for the Union.
This book is chock full of historical detail and because Mary serves as a slave in the Van Lew household, goes to school as freed woman in Philadelphia and serves as a spy in the Confederate household, you get to see the war from multiple angles. I also love how everything is not so cut and dry. Leveen doesn't make it seem like Mary gets a golden ticket by claiming her freedom and going to Philadelphia. She still has to contend with rampant racism there (even from those devoted to ending slavery) and also with a class system among the other black people in Philadelphia. Mary is obviously my favorite character of this novel because she looks past her own needs and the needs of her family and sees how she can have a bigger impact. Without regard for her personal safety she returns to slavery as a maid to the domineering and cruel Varina Davis and helps the war effort immensely. I also loved kooky Bet who does everything she can think of to aid the Union cause including acting like a stark raving mad woman.
The love story that develops between Mary and another character as the novel progresses is also sweet. This is a long novel and it also has a very serious tone so I would recommend this as a rainy day read or when you have a good long while to sit down with it and really lose yourself in it. I can think of a few novels set in the civil war that I liked a little more than this one but it still does rank very highly on my list of books read from this era. It is extremely well written with well developed characters. I only had one small gripe and that was with two historical references made by Mary. In one passage she mentions Mary Antoinette as saying "let them eat cake" and also made reference to Nero fiddling as Rome burned. These are both popular misconceptions but neither is true. Historians are not quite sure who said let them eat cake but the consensus is it was not Marie Antoinette and Nero fiddling as Rome burned is not possible because the fiddle was invented several centuries after Nero's reign. These are really tiny gripes and slightly nitpicky on my part because of the rest of the book was pretty much spot on and the author includes several extras (Reader's Guide, Historical Note, Author Q&A) in the back of the novel which give further insight into the characters and the writing. Really enjoyed this one and highly recommend it.
This book is from my own personal library.
Book Trailer from the author's website: