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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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With the rich detail of Cold Mountain, the strong female bonds of The Help, and the untold history of The Warmth of Other Suns, comes a powerful debut novel about the secrets a woman keeps, and those she will risk everything to tell.

Based on the remarkable true story of a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a masterful debut by an exciting new novelist.

Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women's fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works like Cane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War.

A powerful and unforgettable story of a woman who risked her own freedom to bring freedom to millions of others, The Secrets of Mary Bowser celebrates the courageous achievements of a little known but truly inspirational American heroine.

453 pages, Paperback

First published May 15, 2012

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About the author

Lois Leveen

3 books132 followers
Award-winning author Lois Leveen dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. A confirmed book geek, Lois earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard, the University of Southern California, and UCLA, and taught at UCLA and at Reed College. In addition to her novels JULIET'S NURSE and THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER, she has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, and her poetry and essays have appeared in numerous books, literary journals, and on NPR. Lois gives talks about history and literature at libraries, bookstores, universities, museums, teacher training programs, and conferences throughout the world. She lives in a bright green house in Portland, Oregon, with a charming, bipedal Newfoundlander.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,051 reviews
July 24, 2020
- A story of a mother who believed her child, born in slavery, was gifted by God and who taught her reading by tracing words on ash.
- A story of a father who was allowed to see his family 1 day a week.
- A story of a very brave girl who made sure to join the Civil War effort to help her people along into the better future.

Ok, this one was a bit naïve. And, I'm sure that anachronisms were afoot throughout the novel. Nevertheless I just lapped it up, since a story of all that superhuman resilience proves to be an incredible read.

Not sure what I think of the idea about the poor (&'self-immolating') Mary Ryan being a kamikaze of sorts…

Many a slave lived a whole lifetime never knowing her own papa, nor her mama. Sales tore countless others from cherished families, with no way for parent or child to know thereafter how the other fared. I knew my childhood was a rare respite within bondage, me losing my parents only to death, when most slaves, even my own mama and papa, lost theirs long before. (c)
But she was never too busy to riddle me. She said it was the first kind of learning she could give me, and the most important, too. Be alert, Mama meant. See the world around you. Find what you seek, because it’s already there. (c)
Whenever Mama said you’re old enough, it meant something new was coming. Something hard I had to do, no matter what—cleaning all those fireplaces, polishing the silver, helping her serve and clear the Van Lews’ meals. Old enough was never good news yet. (c)
Mama, your little girl is all grown up, and still playing our best game. I am a spy. (c)
“Slaveholders can’t get enough of beating on negroes, you need to do it, too? To our own child?” (c)
Much as we slaves studied the Van Lews, still we didn’t know whether they had more capital or creditors. (c)
If Mama suspected either Jesus or me of slacking in fulfilling the plan she envisioned, she was sure to let us know. And whatever she felt I did right became certain proof to her that this plan was already writ in stone. (c)
She’d trace out a few words in the ashes of Papa’s fireplace. Keeping her voice low, she always began, “This being Virginia, I sure can’t teach a slave that this writing means . . .” and finished by saying what she’d written. It didn’t take any more instruction than that for me to learn to read and write. (c)
A slave best keep her talents hidden, feigned ignorance being the greatest intelligence in the topsy-turvy house of bondage. (c)
“What are we gonna do, Lewis? What are we gonna do?”

“We gonna be thankful our daughter will grow up free. We gonna figure out a way to be together. And some of us gonna have to admit all your talk about Jesus has a plan for this child may not be so crazy after all.” (c) Invalluable property, fuck!
“We have one year, but not one year from now. One year from the day the state of Virginia knows I’m free. What if nobody knows, nobody that doesn’t have to?” (c)
I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting at slavery can’t be harder than that. (c)
That day Mama taught me that what other people see you as doesn’t determine who you really are. She could let people think she was a slave, if that meant she could be free and live with Papa. We could let them think I’d been sent to work the Van Lews’ market farm or rented out to a family friend in Petersburg, if that meant I could go to Philadelphia without imperiling any chance of coming back to Richmond. (c)
In Richmond, there was no space to which a colored person, free or slave, could deny a white person entry, and no negro could lawfully refuse a white person’s observation. (c)
Once I got over my nervousness, I discovered what a joy it was to be in school, even if I lagged behind in most subjects. Like when you think you’re not all that hungry but you sit down to a real fine meal and suddenly you realize you were ravenous after all. (c)
Only over time did freedom truly take hold. (c)
“McNiven is a white man, going to save another white man. I don’t suppose the aid of yet one more white person would be so strange,” (c)
The half mile that separated us now widened into the chasm between slave and free, age and youth, despair and determination. (c)
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,898 followers
April 25, 2012
Mary Bowser was a real person, a freed slave who spied for the Union during the Civil War. She was highly educated, but played the "ignorant darky," posing as a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Letting the white people believe she was illiterate allowed her access to the war correspondence on Davis's desk. She had a photographic memory, so she would memorize the information, then convert it to code to be sent north to the Union leaders.

The first half of the book covers Mary's life before the Civil War, first as a slave in Richmond, Virginia, then as a free person in Philadelphia, where she was sent at age 12 for her education. When the war began, she chose to return to Richmond, risking everything to serve the cause of freedom. The second half covers that Civil War period. Mary Bowser was incredibly brave for one so young, working with the Underground Railroad as a teen and then as a spy in her early twenties.

If you like to use fiction to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of history, this book is worth a little patience in the reading. I recommend looking at the bonus material in the back of the book before beginning the novel. It provides valuable context, and there are even some photos of buildings and people important to the story.

Readers who prefer strict adherence to fact in their historical fiction should note that this is an imaginative reconstruction of Mary Bowser's life. Records were not kept of the lives of black people, so the author took what little was known and used her expertise as a historian to fill in the rest. At the back of the book, Leveen does make clear specifically what is known and what had to be imagined.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,228 reviews527 followers
June 10, 2017
This is a very interesting story of one young woman's life in and out of slavery and also as an active participant in pro-Union espionage in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Bowser's existence has been authenticated as has that of her prior owner, an ardent abolitionist who freed her own slaves and also participated in espionage in the city during the war. So why am I still left with a somewhat unsettled feeling as I read?

I read historical fiction frequently. In fact it is one of my favorite genres. But what is this book? It is well researched history with a very large component of fiction. For some reason, I am uncomfortable with this book, even while enjoying reading it. Perhaps I would have been personally happier if it had been written as pure historical fiction with an afterward relating it to Mary Bowser. Or maybe I just ate something that disagreed with me and made me ornery this week.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,230 reviews451 followers
June 3, 2017
3.5 stars. A well-written, compelling book that captured the sense and atmosphere of Philadelphia and Richmond, both before and during the Civil War. The author pointed out the racial prejudice that existed in the North, as well as the cruelty of slavery in the South. The novel was based on the real Mary Bowser, who was a Union spy who worked as a slave in the Richmond home of Jefferson Davis, hiding the fact that she was a freed slave who could read and write.

Lois Leveen admits that some things were omitted from this story, and many more things imagined because of the lack of written history about Mary Bowser. But she did her research, and it rings true.
Profile Image for Marialyce (absltmom, yaya).
1,938 reviews722 followers
July 15, 2012
Well I am finished but the question remains did I finish the book? Well, the answer is no. I just gave it up after reading half of it.

Sometimes no matter how you fight the good fight to enjoy, to learn, to like a story, you just can't. Was it the writing that frustrated me? Perhaps as I found a topic which should have been interesting, well....in a word boring. Could I feel for any of the characters? Again the answer would have to be in the negative. Did I care that this was partially based on fact? Again my answer would be no.

Sometimes you just have to know when to fold them. It comes when you dread to pick up the book and read. It comes when you finally admit to yourself that this is tedium and there are literally tons of books out there that will engage you, enlighten you, and more importantly thrill you. This was not one of them.

So, I have finished this book, well, not in the true sense, but in the sense that I just could not subject myself to one more chapter, one more happening, and of course one more word. Sorry to say that I gave up, but happy to say that I did try.
Profile Image for Kathy.
358 reviews
June 6, 2012
Great historical fiction. It grabs your interest from the start, and keeps it. Based on the life of a real person, Mary Bowser, who was born a slave in Virginia, and freed by her owner. She was sent north to Philadelphia for an education, where she became involved with the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War was imminent, she went back south to spy on Jeff Davis in the "Gray House" for the duration of the war.

Although it is all about black and white relations, there are no truly black or white characters. The slave owners are not all totally evil, and the slaves are not all pure and good. And relations are even more complicated among the free people.

One of my favorite parts was the critiques of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN at the "colored" Philadelphia's Gilbert Lyceum lecture hall. I also appreciated the use of the word "colored". Although I have always thought it was a stupid term, it was the polite word that people used in those days, so for the sake of accuracy, that's what any of the people of the time would say.

There is no lecturing on furniture or clothing styles, but you quickly pick up information about what people are sleeping on, and what different people are wearing. Half the fun of historical fiction is learning about a different way of life. The other half is a great story. This book has both to perfection.

Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
March 13, 2012
Remedy to “The Help”

“The Secrets of Mary Bowser” is a page turner. The setting is antebellum Virginia, Mary is born a slave but is set free, and she heads north but later chooses to return to Virginia in order to spy for the Union during the Civil War Mary Bowser was a real person however, since few details are known of her activities Leveen let’s her imagination run free, since the author’s area of specialization is American History she bases the action on that knowledge. The very best part of the book is that it’s written from an African American perspective. Mary’s motivation for her brave acts is to make her life, and others who are still enslaved, better. They act in their own behalf. This is in contrast to the perspective in “The Help”. Don’t get me wrong I LOVED “The Help” but it was so refreshing to read and African American’s perspective. There’s lots of history here. You’ll find yourself being reminded and/or reading more details about historical happenings such as the race riots that occurred in the North when whites attacked blacks because they resented feeling forced to fight a war to free southern blacks. Then, as the war wears on in the South, and whites were either dead or already fighting Jefferson Davis was faced with arming slaves to fight which contradicted the South’s stance that the slaves were children who needed whites to tell them what to do. And Mary was in the heart of all this, pulling strings of her own as well as keeping Lincoln informed.

Though there’s lots of history this is also a personal story. We read about Mary’s early childhood with her nuclear family and later about the many friends she meets in the North, we learn about their work in the Underground Railroad, and what life was like in the North before the war. It’s a coming of age story with the Civil War as backdrop. This is Leveen’s first book. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for her second. So many contemporary books are short on plot. This not the case with “The Secrets of Mary Bowser”.

Profile Image for kate.
659 reviews
February 22, 2013
Bear with me for a moment.

One of the best tools used in the management of forests is prescribed burns - where parts of the forest, thick with understory, dried needles, and combustible materials are set aflame. If done properly, the resulting environment is richer, safer, and healthier for new growth and wildlife habitats. If done poorly, well, it all goes to hell.

I read a lot. Since I was four, I have basically read anything that my eyes fell upon. There are a lot of ideas, details, and random bits of information in my head (including this bit about forest management).

Every once in a while (less frequently as I get older/read more), a book comes along that sets my brain afire and the resulting ideas are richer and more complex than before. This book was my prescribed burn for all of the books I have read and things that I have thought about slavery and race in America.

I cannot even begin to tell you all of the new things that I am thinking in this little ole review, but after you read it, let's absolutely talk.

There was only one false note for me in the entire thing: the Forrest Gump treatment of the early to mid-Civil War period. For those chapters, Mary Bowser was everywhere important and making all of the most important decisions. Because this book is based on a real person of which we only know a few solid details, I chose to overlook that treatment and consider it the author introducing a few of the many possibilities for what could have actually happened. It was sort of like a brief Choose Your Own Adventure book (of which I always read all of the variations anyways).

Stop reading this review and go read the book already.
Profile Image for Camie.
893 reviews186 followers
July 29, 2017
Based on the true story of Mary Bowser a young house slave who was freed and sent north to Philadelphia by Bet the daughter of the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond. Though she and her mother were both freed her father was owned by another family and was not, so the decision was made that her parents would stay and Mary would go it alone on the journey. Later as the Civil War heats up, she will jeopardize her freedom and her life by returning to Virginia to help her ailing father and to aid Bet Van Lew with the growing abolition movement. According to a brave and brilliant plan she is able to pose as a house slave in the Confederate White House of President Jefferson Davis. Because of the general assumption that slaves were illiterate , and treated as if they were almost invisible ... Mary is able to discover and pass on incredible amounts of information to others helping the Union command. Though the book is well written it's a sad fact that much of the book had to be imagined as there were simply very few actual records kept regarding slaves as well as women during this time in history. It's still a good read about a heroine who should finally be recognized. It seems almost stranger than fiction that even as the confederates learned their secrets were being leaked they never considered the true source of how it was happening even a remote possibility! June pick - On The Southern Literary Trail 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Rina.
151 reviews
May 2, 2013
This book was neither good nor bad. It existed. I'm sure other people with different expectations or that don't have the same pet peeves will probably like it.

If I had to pick, I liked the first half of the book better. But, really, it doesn't matter because the whole book is exaggerations and embellishments. Even ignoring facts that were already researched and replacing them with fiction. I don't care for "inspired by a true story" and I don't think I ever will because its really just fiction trying to attract people with a modicum of truth behind a whole pile of imagination. I'm not insulting imagination. I think it's great. Just not when its masquerading as if it is based in truth.

I also just found the book to be a series of interesting moments with filler in between. Relatively speaking, the life Mary had as a slave was not as bad as the kinds portrayed in books focused on plantations. I expected to see that type of cruelty and suffering. Also, the transition into free life in Philadelphia was a story I hadn't read before, though I assume plenty exist. For that reason, I found the first half of the book interesting.

Objectively, the second half of the book was probably more eventful. However, I expect war to be eventful and, relative to that expectation, not all that much happened. Except the last five or so pages, which (SPOILER ALERT) can be summarized as RICHMOND BURNING, SMOKE INHALATION (IGNORE THE CIVIL WAR ENDING), "OH, HEY MR. LINCOLN!"
Profile Image for Karen Hogan.
852 reviews31 followers
August 29, 2021
An female ex-slave returns to the South as a union spy. Read up to 45 percent of this book but could not connect with the protagonist or the story which seemed boring to me.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 10 books804 followers
March 28, 2012
Where I got the book: ARC from LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Expected publication date is 5/15/12.

This novel seems to be generating some buzz, so I was quite pleased to get a chance to be an early reviewer. It is based on historical truth, in that there really was a former slave called Mary Bowser who in some way helped her former owner, Bet Van Lew, and an associate named Thomas McNiven send information about Confederate plans to Lincoln and his generals in the Civil War.

As almost nothing else is known about the real Mary, Leveen is free to imagine Mary's story based on what is known about the lives of slaves and free coloreds in the era. And she does a thorough, professional job of it, giving Mary a voice that is distinctly 19th century (to the point where modern readers may have to use a dictionary in places) and carefully incorporating historical events into the narrative.

It's hard to find fault with a book that is well written and edited, meticulously researched and based on a fascinating topic. But I'm going to anyway. I found myself thinking that this is exactly the kind of novel New York loves: the writer has writing credits, academic and literary credibility, and a platform. She's a Serious Writer (whereas I am the first to acknowledge my amateur status). Am I suffering from a case of sour grapes? I hope not.

My problem with this novel is that it just didn't catch fire for me. It should have done: there was so much there, so much incident and life-threatening situations, life and death and love and all the rest. And yet I found it extremely easy to put down after a few pages (and the word 'boring' was beginning to float around my skull at about the two-thirds mark, although I really don't want to apply that label as I think many readers will love this novel). The problem, for me, was that at times the novel took on that dramatized-textbook feel that you get when the writer has really taken pains to get the thing historically accurate. When we moved more into Mary's story, I was happy enough: Leveen handles dialogue well in these sections. And then Mary would be listening to a conversation between real-life historical figures, and the whole thing would become a bit stilted, especially as it was necessary for these characters to explain what was happening.

Call me a philistine, but I'd rather have had something livelier and less historically elucidating. The Secrets of Mary Bowser functions really well as a historically accurate corrective to the Gone-With-The-Wind romance of devoted servants and noble masters, but (whisper it low) I re-read GWTW until the covers fell off, but I won't do the same to Mary.

Nevertheless, an interesting read which will be enthusiastically received by the writing establishment. I predict NYT bestseller status.

Profile Image for Annette.
743 reviews321 followers
November 25, 2015
“This story is of a real person, Mary Bowser. Born a slave in Richmond, Virginia; freed and educated in the North, but returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War.” A few details are known about her, therefore the author had to fill the gaps with her imagination.

I reached for this book as I was very impressed by this author’s second book, Juliet’s Nurse, with her skills of writing. This book starts interesting and is for about 2/3 of the book. In the third part I felt disconnected with the main character as the story seemed to be more about the Civil War than Mary.

As the story starts it is rich in interesting details of Mary’s life, including a detail of her incredible memory and how it surfaced in her life. Descriptions of places make the reader truly experience the place. The voice of the main character is very real.

The first part of the book is about her life in Richmond and the second in Pennsylvania.

In the third her work is being revealed for which she became known. The author painted a good portrait of hardship of a war, shortage of food and other goods and its effect. But as I mentioned before, I felt disconnected with the main character in this part. I think the author concentrated too much on the Civil War rather than the main character.

Overall, it is an interesting read, but towards the end I had to force myself to finish this story.
Profile Image for Rosy.
203 reviews1 follower
April 10, 2013
The Secrets of Mary Bowser tells the story of a freed slave who returns to the South to spy for the Union. The reader learns of Mary Bowser's life as a slave who was freed by her owner and then sent to Philadelphia to obtain an education. As the Civil War approaches, Mary finds herself involved in the Underground Railroad, eventually returning to Richmond to spy as a slave in Jefferson Davis's home.

Containing less espionage and more historical fiction, the plot is well-researched but focuses more on Mary's backstory prior to the war. Mary Bowser as a character is an empowered, bold female protagonist, though I thought the first person voice bothersome, almost presumptuous and self serving. Bet Van Lew serves as an excellent foil to Mary as her former owner turned spy partner. Although the pace lagged in certain sections, the novel is full of insightful contrasts of North versus South and black versus white, and really emphasizes how the war was responsible for so much upheaval.

The ending, specifically the last scene, was really cloying and almost ruined the entire book for me. I'd recommend this book to fans of historical fiction but it definitely had a lot of slow moments.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,694 reviews14.1k followers
June 4, 2012
I have read many novels about slavery and the Civil War but what sets this novel apart from others is that it encompasses so much and so it so well. That Mary was an actual person and that the letters and newspaper articles were factual just adds to the wonderful telling of the story that unfolds. This novel shows both sides of the slavery issue, what both white and black abolitionists went through as well as how blacks were treated in the Northern states that had already outlawed slavery. Loved the characters of Mary, her mom and Dad and Bets, a white woman who risked much in Virginia, for the abolishment of an institution she found unjust. Loved reading this story and would loved to have met many of these people.
Profile Image for QNPoohBear.
2,960 reviews1,478 followers
February 19, 2017
Mary El was born a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond. Mama and Mary El work in the house while Papa works as a blacksmith for an Irishman. Mary El loves Sundays when she gets to see her Papa. Sometimes he buys her presents "just because." She knows she is loved and is proud of it. Mama tries to teach Mary the realities of slavery without dampening the girl's spirit. As the national crisis over slavery heats up, their "young" mistress, Miss Bet Van Lew, starts spouting abolitionist sentiments, much to the dismay of her family and friends. After Old Master Van Lew passes away and Miss Bet comes into her inheritance, she uses it to buy- and free- her mother's slaves. This includes Mary El and her Mama, but not Papa. His owner won't sell for any price. The law says manumitted slaves have to leave the state within one year or be resold into slavery. Papa won't risk running, Mama won't leave Papa, what will happen to Mary El? Well, Miss Bet has plans for the girl which include a fancy education up north in the city of Philadelphia. Mary is scared to leave home and her family but excited to be free. In Philadelphia, she discovers freedom is not quite what she expected. She learns lessons about race and class prejudice, love, the role of women in 19th century society right along with Shakespeare, Longfellow, Latin and everything else. When war becomes imminent, Mary has a difficult choice to make. She returns to Virginia and uses her education and photographic memory to win the war for the Union and help end slavery forever.

This was a story that I was familiar with. I first read about Mary Elizabeth Bowser in Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies and again in The Spymistress. When I picked this up, I wondered what else I could learn. Since the actual details of her life are scant, the author has to fill in the blanks. Then I wondered how a white woman could write in the voice of a black woman. I would never presume to do it even for all the studying I have done on slavery and the lives of enslaved women. I can't say whether Mary's voice comes across as accurate but it sounds very much like how I, as a white woman, would imagine an enslaved woman would think and speak.

The story itself is intriguing at times. The middle section reads like a grown up version of Addy Learns a Lesson: A School Story. There is a little too much telling at times. The author packs the book so full of events that it's hard to include Mary in all of them. I think Mary's role is a little too much to be believed by the end of the war. Not that she couldn't do what she did, but that she was the only one relaying all that information affecting the outcome of the war. That seems a little implausible. I would have preferred the author to focus on certain key events and not cover the entire history of the war with every single event that happened.

The relationship plot is very good. It shows how money and family history affected African Americans' perceptions of themselves and other African Americans. Money and social class outweighs race in their view, which is really fascinating. Mary also learns about expectations for traditional Society wives versus the way she was raised to think of herself and her own ideas about the future. She discovers just what kind of relationship she wants and it's a great one. I really liked the domestic scenes and seeing how she relates to the men in her life.

Mary is certainly an unsung American hero even if she didn't do half of what she does in the novel. She put her very life on the line for the greater good. She's an appealing character. Her emotions feel very realistic. As a young child she sounds like a spoiled and loved child who thinks highly of herself. She grows up a lot but remains true to herself. She never backs down though she has moments of doubt. Her relationships with other characters help form her personality and direct her actions. I really liked her.

Miss Bet, Elizabeth Van Lew, doesn't fare as well from the point-of-view of Mary as she does in her own story (The Spymistress). She's single-minded, spoiled, contrary and very blind to anything but her own agenda and beliefs. I took exception to her crazy act since it has not been proven that she ever acted crazy. I was a little upset at first that she was such a stereotypical, two-dimensional character but she too grows a bit. Her mother comes across as something of a villain at first- a typical slave owner. She also has her own growing up to do in old age and becomes more sympathetic. I wondered whether she just accepted the status quo or if she was really such a hard woman.

There are some invented characters to round out Mary's world in the second section. Some of the characters are based on real people and none of them are all that appealing. I disliked Theodore and his actions when Mary was insulted. I was surprised she continued to see him after that. His mother, aunt and cousin were awful. I loved Mary's friend Hattie and her loving family. She provides a good contrast and shows what an ordinary free black woman's life was like in Philadelphia. I greatly admire her father. I especially love Wilson Bowser. He is a man of principle, good sense and passion. He knows what he has to do and is firm in his beliefs. He is a very kind and loving man while still being strong.

In the final section, the Davis family appear as major supporting characters. They're all awful, especially Varina. Varina is spoiled, selfish and needs a good slap herself. She also needed a better nanny. I know she was raised to be a typical "belle" and Mary Lincoln was also difficult but Varina is supposed to be the villain here and really has no other role and shows no growth. The servants are two dimensional and stereotypical as well.

I guess this is a good place to start if you don't know the story. I really liked parts of it so I guess my rating is more like 3.5 stars. The long war stories and two-dimensional supporting characters keep me from giving it a higher rating.
Profile Image for Barb.
1,168 reviews126 followers
March 8, 2012
I loved this book and that's a pretty rare thing for me. I tend to be rather finicky about my fiction and most of what I do read doesn't thrill me. This did. The author's research on the period and her skill as a writer come shining through in this well told and emotional story.

Mary Van Lew Bowser, born a slave in Richmond Virginia, was freed as a young woman then sent to a private school in Philadelphia at the insistence of her former owner's daughter. Years later Mary returns to Richmond and is able to serve the cause of abolition by becoming a spy in the household of Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House.

I've read several novels and non-fiction works on the topic of slavery and this is a very different account from what I've previously read. The author successfully paints a portrait of slave life as complicated and dangerous and informs the reader about the many crazy, unjust laws in Virginia during the period before the Civil War: If slaves freed in Virginia were still living there a year after gaining freedom they would be resold as slaves, any slave who left Virginia to get an education could, by law, never return, and free blacks could not rent out any dwelling to slaves.

One of the issues I hadn't read about before was the prejudiced attitudes of some free blacks against former slaves and slaves. I thought that was really interesting and depicted very convincingly. The author also focused on how some abolitionists seemed more focused on the pathos of slavery rather than the real people who experienced slavery.

The author does a wonderful job bringing the period and historical figures to life. At one point in my reading I was so engrossed in the life of Mary Van Lew and her struggles that I forgot she would become a Union spy.

This is an excellent story, well written and engrossing.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in this period of American History.
Profile Image for Tina .
573 reviews29 followers
July 2, 2017
Star Rating: 3.5

This novel is based on the true story of a woman named Mary Bowser who played a very important role as a spy for the Union in the Civil War. Have you heard of her? I had not, but she was an educated, free, black woman who worked undercover as a slave in Jefferson Davis' Confederate house. Can't imagine the stories and knowledge that could be gained if only we knew more about Mary. Sadly, not much is known about her or her dangerous job. What courage Mary must have had!

I think Lois Leveen wrote a nice story with what little information she had to work with about Mary Bowser. The novel drags a bit in places and is a bit too neat at the end. Likable and I learned about a very important Southern woman that helped change the face of our nation.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,122 followers
September 7, 2012
A great historical work of fiction based on the real life of Mary Bowser, a freed slave with a photographic memory who becomes educated and returns to her home town of Richmond working as a slave in the home and headquarters of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to spy on his correspondence and relay coded messages to the North in hopes of emancipation for all slaves. Loved the last sentence of the book, "I wasn't working for Jeff Davis. I worked for freedom, and for you, Mr. Lincoln ."
Profile Image for reading is my hustle.
1,470 reviews284 followers
August 3, 2016
Very good read that focuses on free blacks and their role in abolition. I learned so much. The difference between urban slaves and farm slaves. About free black life in Philadelphia. What it meant to be a pro-Union or pro-Confederate white Southerner. The layers of this story! Outstanding.
Profile Image for Charlene Intriago.
353 reviews71 followers
October 20, 2017
This is a good book - a 3.5 star for me - and I have gone back and forth trying to decide whether to round up to 4 stars but I'm going to leave it at 3. I liked it. The author did a fabulous job of taking a real person, Mary Bowser, and writing historical fiction based on what little information we have of her. Mary is born a house slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother Minerva is a slave in the house and Mary's father is a blacksmith owned by someone else. Mary is an extremely intelligent little girl but the best thing about her is her ability to hear things and recite them back almost verbatim. And, that memory is a tremendous asset once she learns to read.

Bet Van Lew, the daughter in the Van Lew family, detests slavery and is instrumental in seeing that Mary has an opportunity for an education in Philadelphia. But, Mary also has an opportunity to return to Richmond. She does and she puts that education to good use as a spy during the Civil War.

Great descriptions of life in Richmond and Philadelphia for all people prior to and during the Civil War and of the politics that were going on leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln. I think these descriptions are the strength of this book, but Mary Bowser and Bet Van Lew were amazing women. I'm glad I read their story.
Profile Image for Holly Weiss.
Author 3 books118 followers
May 15, 2012
Article first published as Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen on Blogcritics.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a historical novel set in our nation’s darkest hour that packs a punch featuring a slave-turned spy heroine.

Mary Bowser spends her youth as a house slave in urban Richmond alongside her mother. Richmond was “the north of the south,” meaning escape from slavery was possible. It was also dangerous because of the Fugitive Slave Act; mandating free states return runaway slaves to the south.

Outspoken abolitionist, Bet Van Lew, no-nonsense daughter of the deceased slaveholder, encourages Mary to go north to get an education. Mary’s forward-thinking mother agrees, noting that Mary has a special calling in life. Mary Bowser takes a train to the free state of Philadelphia a decade before the Civil War begins. After experiencing an unsettling form of prejudice in Philadelphia, she returns home to be part of a Union spy ring in Richmond. A master of stealth, Mary must choose between what is right, rather than what is easy.

A precocious child, Mary valued any opportunity to expand her knowledge. Visitors to the Richmond house brought a valuable commodity—information. Even so, at age eleven she says, “A slave best keep her talents hidden, feigned ignorance being the greatest intelligence in the topsy-turvy house of bondage.”

Author Lois Leveen holds a Ph.D. in English from UCLA with a specialty in African American Literature. She came across Mary Bowser’s espionage while reading a woman’s history book. She gifts us a story about a real woman about whom little is known. The Secrets of Mary Bowser answers these questions:

• Why would anyone leave the North and sacrifice her own freedom?
• Does Mary choose freedom or her family?
• How did it feel to be educated, but spend her days with people who considered her ignorant?

The book focuses on urban (as opposed to field) slavery and free black life in Philadelphia. This high intensity historical fiction novel brings to light an important, but yet untold story of slavery. Mary’s courage, resilience, and determination to make a difference are masterfully portrayed. Narrated by Mary, the dialogue rings true to slave culture of the nineteenth century and is thoroughly researched. Full of newspaper clippings, correspondence, real historical figures, imagined characters, and secret codes, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is historical fiction of the highest caliber.

Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
Profile Image for Andrea Guy.
1,464 reviews61 followers
May 23, 2012
There are some books that you can't help but be drawn into. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is one of those books. Once you pick it up, you will be drawn into Mary's life, and you won't be able to put it down. When you read this book you are taken back in time to the pre-Civil war era.

Not a pretty time for our country.

The story is based on real people and events. I actually started looking things up when I was reading this book. I wanted to know more. See Mary Bowser was more than just a freed slave. She became educated and during the war she was a spy in the Confederate White House!

You grow up with Mary, you watch as her passions for abolition ignite.

You also see things that aren't in many novels about the era, what life was liked for people of color in the North. It wasn't necessarily pretty there either. That's illustrated quite a bit, when young Mary comes to Philadelphia for her education, thanks to Bet.

What I loved about this book, besides how wonderfully written and visual it is, are the extras at the end, especially the part about the world of Mary Bowser. It was really nice to see the evidence of the research that went into this book.

I can't recommend this book more, especially if you have a love of history.
Profile Image for Erin Lindsay McCabe.
Author 4 books228 followers
October 13, 2015
I learned so much reading this book! While I knew of Bet Van Lew, I'd never even heard of Mary Bowser, and now that I have, I can't understand why I was never taught about her in school. This novel is chock full of historical goodness that is clearly the result of extensive research and gives an eye-opening account of life for slave and free blacks before and during the Civil War. A must-read for fans of Civil War novels or African American and Women's history.
Profile Image for Nima Morgan.
224 reviews40 followers
April 3, 2018
what a gripping, thrilling, and fascinating story. A must read if you are a fan of the civil war era and interested in that time period.
Profile Image for Christina.
81 reviews8 followers
July 29, 2012
The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a Historical Fiction novel based on a real figure from the Civil War era of United States history. Mary Bowser was born into slavery and worked as a domestic house slave with her mother in Richmond, Virgina. When their master dies, the master's daughter Bet Van Lew frees the family slaves. Bet attended school in Philadelphia, and during her education had become a strong voice for abolitionism in her own social circles. Not only does Bet free her family's slaves, but she finances Mary's education in Philadelphia. Mary's parents are unable to go to Philadelphia because her father was still a slave; Mary's mother stays in Richmond and poses as a slave in the Van Lew household.

In Philadelphia, Mary finds school to be challenging even though she has a photographic memory, but she strives to be the best. Even though Philadelphia is a northern progressive city, Mary faces discrimination on several levels. Mary meets a helpful and friendly white Quaker lady, but when Mary attends a Quaker church service, she is sent to the back of the meeting room/sanctuary. Mary is literally thrown off public transportation, and some of the free African-American families look down their noses at Mary who was recently freed from slavery. Above all, she is accepted by her good friend Hattie and her family. Hattie's father is an undertaker, but more importantly his funeral parlor is a stop on the underground railroad. Mary is inevitably drawn to work with the underground railroad.

When the country is on the brink of civil war, Mary decides to return home to Richmond to care for her father because her mother has passed away. She falls in love and marries Wilson Bowser who she met previously with her work on the underground railroad. Wilson is a free man and owns his own barbershop, he helps take care and watches out for Mary's father who is suffering from depression. Mary continues some work with the underground railroad, and during the civil war she takes her work to another level by spying and encoding messages for the Union. Virginia is a Confederate state, and during the war she is well aware that the punishment for spying is execution. Her final job was posing as a slave in the household of Jefferson Davis, where she gleans a wealth of information. The Confederates assume that all slaves are illiterate and uneducated so this is the perfect opportunity for Mary (with her photographic memory!) to gather information and send it to the Union.

This was an amazing novel about an amazing lady. I feel hurt that I was never taught about Mary Bowser in history class. The novel itself was told in the first person and is not overly descriptive or lyrical, it is just straightforward story telling. The prose uses slang terms of the day such as the "n" word which makes my skin bristle when I read or hear it, but it was used in historical context for the novel. The characters were well developed and I cared about what happened to Mary, her family and friends, from the very beginning.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,586 reviews22 followers
April 12, 2012
I think this book is one of the best historical fictions for 2012. Mary Bowser was real person, a freed slave who put her mark on history. With very few details about Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen brings to life a story of a woman with courage, intelligence and determination. I was sad to finish this page turner.

Born a slave in Richmond Virginia, she lived with her mother, in the attic of the Van Lew mansion. Her mother taught her riddles and later how to read by drawing the letters in the ashes of the fireplace. She taught Mary how to survive while living the double life of a slave.

Her father lived in his small cabin on a nearby property of a different slave owner. Even though her family could only be together once a week, Mary realized that she was very privileged to have both parents. So many slaves had been forcefully cut off from their families and forced to live among complete strangers. Even babies were sold away from their mothers to fatten the owner’s purse.

Bet, the spinster daughter in the Van Lew family had been educated up North and learned ideas about slavery that went against her father’s. But she was still very strict about getting everything just so. Mary couldn’t trust her because she did not really know what it was like to be a slave. But Bet changes in this book as time requires her to start making sacrifices and feeling the effects of starvation and poverty.

One afternoon, Bet was reading a newspaper article to her mother as she usually did. Mary latched on to one of the stories and was able to recite word for word, even though she could not read. Mary’s mother was quiet then but later revealed to Mary that it was as a sign. Her mother knew that someday, Mary’s gift of a strong memory would be important. But just like any slave, she would have to pretend to be ignorant and hide her gift.
Mary was forced to prove that she hadn’t read the article or she would have been severely punished.

Bet Van Lew later paid from her inheritance for Mary and her mother and sent Mary to Philadelphia for an education.

When the time came, Mary would use her gift of an excellent memory and her wonderful education to help slaves to become free.

I highly recommend this book to all interested in the history.
Profile Image for Jo Ann.
594 reviews13 followers
October 13, 2017
This book was recommended to me by a delightful young docent when I toured a Civil War home in Richmond, Virginia this past summer...and I'm so glad she did. I really can't decide if I partly loved this book because of just having seen so many of the places this book refers to, or whether I'd have loved it this much anyway. I had read The Spymistress, by Jennifer Chiaverini, a historical fiction novel about Elizabeth Van Lew, who was a spy for Lincoln's Union troops during the War. And, this real person owned and freed and paid for the Northern education of one of her slaves, Mary Bowser, who was bright, and who had a photographic memory. That intelligence and memory led her to return from Philadelphia to work and spy in "The Gray House," the home of Jefferson Davis, then President of The Confederate States. Mary put on the demeanor of a rather slow, less-than-intelligent slave, and was able to clean Davis's office (and recall strategies of war documents), listen to conversations from the children's nursery next to the President's office, or learn key facts when serving Davis and his generals at dinner. No one suspected Mary, who then used codes to alert the Union side. Between Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, I wonder how many key battles would have been altered, as well as the history of our country. We don't actually have a great deal of information about Mary, and all traces of her are lost after the Civil War, though we know about her family and marriage, her life with the Van Lews, etc. Therefore, Leveen used surviving papers and bits of family history to construct the life of this courageous and dedicated young woman. I'm glad The Gray House survived and we can tour it, and I'm saddened that the Van Lew home was burned by angry Richmond folk who were incensed that Elizabeth and Mary were so dedicated to the Union cause and abolishing slavery. I was fortunate in Richmond to have a well informed tour guide, too, who knew about these women and their histories...and this book was icing on the cake!
Profile Image for Barbara Mitchell.
242 reviews17 followers
May 13, 2012
Mary Bowser was a real woman who lived in the mid 19th century in Richmond, VA. Her owners, the Van Lew family, gave her her freedom and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. Later she returned to Richmond, married a free black man, and spied for the North during the Civil War while her husband spirited slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad. Mary eventually got a job as a maid in the house of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, a perfect position from which to send valuable information to the north. Davis knew someone was getting information out from the Gray House but Mary, as a slave, was invisible to him; he never suspected her.

This is a short synopsis of the plot which doesn't do justice to the personality and determination of the main characters or the undercurrent of fear that runs throughout. In this fictional account of Mary Bowser's life, we follow her to Philadelphia and back and to the end of the war.

Mary's former owner, Bet Van Lew, is one of the most intriguing characters. She's a dyed in the wool abolitionist and yet she really doesn't have a clue what it means to be a slave. Her color blindness is naive and touching, but she also manages to ignore danger to accomplish some valuable work getting news out, saving slaves, and bringing much needed food in from her outlying farm. Even more impressive is that this spinster from a privileged family never complains of or even reveals the heavy sacrifices she must make during the war.

Mary is of course the character around whom everything revolves. She has a prodigious talent for memorizing. She is strong and inventive but not superwoman. Occasionally her fears overcome her courage but she pulls herself together and does what she has to do. Her story will pull you in and won't let you go.

This is definitely going to be on my Best Books of 2012 List.
Profile Image for Karen.
102 reviews17 followers
March 29, 2013
I stayed up all night to I read this book in day and a half. I was enthralled. As a general rule, I do not read books about The Civil War nor about slavery. This book caught my attention because 1)It is about a real person, 2) The author (thankfully) did not write it in "slave dialect" and 3). It is set in my hometown, Richmond, Virginia. I do not have enough positives adjectives to adequately express how impressed I am with Lois Leveen's book. The characters, while actual people in history, are so well drawn and well-rounded (regardless of the lack of actual historical information on hand) I developed a real emotional attachment to each one. I cheered their individual and collective successes and ached when they experience hardship and difficulties. Leveen's dialogue is positively prosaic. I have rarely read such well-written and moving dialogue. I can still hear Mary's voice in my head. I am overwhelmed with admiration for the level of Leveen's research and attention to detail about the course of the war, the geography, lifestyle and landmarks in Civil War Richmond. My emotional response to this story and to Mary Bowser was quite intense. I was able to relate to Mary on a personal level especially since I am now facing a lot of hardship, difficulties, disappointments and obstacles in my own life. I wish we could know more about her life and her legacy. Unfortunately the only emotion I did not experience was laughter. I never got to laugh out loud. Perhaps because the events were based on one of the darkest periods in our Nation's history, Leveen could not justifiably insert any comic relief. I so enjoyed this book and wish everyone could and would read it.
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