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Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

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Are you ready for 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 one of the grandest antebellum homes in Richmond. Richmond was “the north of the south,” meaning escape from slavery was possible, but dangerous because of the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating free states return runaway slaves to the south. A precocious child, Mary grabs any opportunity to expand her knowledge. Visitors to the Richmond house bring 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.”

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. Her courage, resilience, and determination to make a difference are masterfully portrayed. A master of stealth, Mary chooses to do what is right, rather than what is easy.

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 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?
• Does she have the courage to do what is ethical at the expense of her personal safety?

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. Narrated by Mary, the dialogue rings true to slave culture of the nineteenth century. Thoroughly researched, the book is full of newspaper clippings, correspondence, real historical figures, Underground Railroad stories, and secret codes. This book has “best seller” written all over it. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is not only fascinating reading, but also historical fiction of the highest caliber.

We wish we had Mary Bowser’s own account of her extraordinary life. Because we don’t, we’ll rely on Lois Leveen’s book. How true is The Secrets of Mary Bowser?
Visit Lois Leveen’s website to find out.

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About Holly Weiss

  • Jane Becker

    I heard it is the next Gone With the Wind. Do you agree?

  • http://www.hollyweiss.com Holly Weiss

    The Secrets of Mary Bowser takes a different tack than Gone With the Wind. It focuses more on Mary’s impact on the Civil War. I’d say it’s less encompassing in scope, but just as powerful.

  • Eli Penn

    Ms Weiss’ review was extremely helpfull. I’ve read other reviews she’s written and find her to be very reliable an accurate in her evaluations. I encourage others to read her reviews and take them to heart.
    Eli