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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  6,476 ratings  ·  952 reviews
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, ...more
Kindle Edition, 673 pages
Published May 15th 2012 by Harper Collins
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3.96  · 
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 ·  6,476 ratings  ·  952 reviews

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Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
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 cover
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
Diane Barnes
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
May 25, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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, 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 f
Jun 05, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 wh
Mar 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
A compelling storyline of a young girl born into slavery whose mistress sends her to the North to be educated and to obtain her freedom. Mary Bowser returns South to be near her enslaved father and proceeds to play a significant role in the emancipation of slaves through her employment as a maid at Jefferson Davis's home. This is a nice story if you can suspend reality and just kick back and enjoy. If not, it will be difficult, as believability is strained at many junctures such as (view spoiler ...more
Feb 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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 nothin
Jul 05, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 t
Diane S ☔
Sep 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
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 ...more
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 i
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 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 mo
May 14, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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.
Charlene Intriago
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 extr ...more
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 Lo
Holly Weiss
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 slav
Aug 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ."
Jo Ann
Oct 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rea ...more
I was very impressed with how deftly Leveen told the story of Mary Bowser and Bet Van Lew, given just how little is known about them, particularly Mary. I love history, and I especially love the history of people, things, and events that tend to be marginalized in traditional school classrooms. I had never knew of either of these two women's existence, and I wish they were at least mentioned in my school textbooks because they are amazing.

Leveen focuses on Mary Bowser, who was born a slave to th
Andrea Guy
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.
Kim Kaso
The story of a former slave who risks her freedom to spy for the North in her former home, Richmond, VA. The actual person existed, but as is so often the case with women in history, and women of color in particular, very little is actually known. The author has taken what few facts were known and has imagined and extrapolated those facts into an exciting and involving story of the woman who worked in Jefferson Davis's household & provided critical information to the Union to aid in the defe ...more
Erin Lindsay McCabe
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.
Apr 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Historical fiction is at its best when an overlooked area of history is explored with in-depth characters (real or fictionalized). This novel hits both of those marks.

First, it deals with urban slavery before and during the Civil War. This is not the typical tale of the brutalities of plantation slavery, but rather the story of slave owners “hiring out” slaves. The close quarters and laws governing the living situations of these slaves (including the freed persons they may be married to married
Aug 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent!!!!! I really loved this book and then reading about the factual characters and events! Highly recommend!
Kressel Housman
Few people know about Mary Bowser, but as a servant/slave in Jefferson Davis’ Gray House, she may well have been one of the most important spies of the Civil War, if not the most important. Unfortunately, not that much is known about what secrets she uncovered – spies necessarily have to cover their tracks – but she was recognized for her contribution in about 2011 or so, and this book followed shortly after. Because of the sparse historical record, the book is most decidedly historical fiction ...more
May 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen brilliantly brings attention to an unknown but captivating true story of a courageous black woman who risked her life and freedom working as a spy in the Jefferson Davis household. Mary and her mother, Minerva, are household slaves in the wealthy household of Old Master Van Lew. Mary’s father, also a slave, is a skilled blacksmith who lives for the weekly Sunday visit from his daughter and “wife.” While the family dreams of freedom, in the meantime, they ...more
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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 ...more
“It didn’t matter if it took me days, even weeks, to make my way through some of those tomes. I had time and quiet and lots to read, and that contented me.” 0 likes
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