Saturday, July 14, 2012

REVIEW: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Synopsis (from Amazon): Based on a remarkable true Story, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an inspiring tale of one daring woman's willingness to sacrifice her own freedom to change the course of history.  All her life, Mary has been a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond, Virginia.  But when Bet, the willful Van Lew daughter, decides to send Mary to Philadelphia to be educated, she must leave her family to seize her freedom.  Life in the North brings new friendships, a courtship, and a far different education than Mary ever expected, one that leads her into the heart of the abolition movement. With the nation edging toward war, she defies Virginia law by returning to Richmond to care for her ailing father-and to fight for emancipation. Posing as a slave in the Confederate White House in order to spy on President Jefferson Davis, Mary deceives even those who are closest to her to aid the Union command.  Just when it seems that all her courageous gambles to end slavery will pay off, Mary discovers that everything comes at a cost-even freedom.

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:


  1. Goodie...I bought this recently...can't wait to read it.

  2. I've heard nothing but good things about this book. It sounds fantastic, so I must make time to read it at some point. Great review!

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Holly. I especially appreciate your delicacy in not giving away plot points!

    You're correct, of course, about Marie Antoinette and Nero . . . but at the moment that Mary Bowser thinks those thoughts/says those words, people generally believed it, and so Mary speaks from what's believed in her era. (This is one of the challenges of writing in the first-person . . . as an author, I can only convey what Mary thinks/experiences, which is of course subjective).