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Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a historical novel taking place before and during the American Civil War. Very little is known about Mary Bowser, a free slave who went back into Virginia to spy for the Union at Jefferson Davis’ house during the Civil War.

Based on a true story, Mary has been a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, VA. Bet Van Lew, the daughter and abolitionist, frees Mary and sends her to school in Philadelphia.

When a war seems imminent, Mary returns to Virginia, defying the law, to care for her ailing father. Posing as a slave in the Confederate White House, Mary puts her photographic memory to good use.

 Since there is a mystery surrounding the identity of Mary Bowser (even though her name as a spy was Ellen Bond, which didn’t make it into this book), there are many liberties taken with the character. This could be good or bad and could easily backfire at the author, however I think this time it worked and the author does a fine job not only with the characterization, but also describing the daily lives of free blacks during the era.

The first half of the book takes place before the war starts, the second half, where Bowser goes to work for Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is fascinating. The other historical characters in the book, such as Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent abolitionist and Bowser’s former owner who freed her, are also well-written and interesting.

Despite the era and material, I didn’t find the story too dark even though there are elements of violence. 

It is difficult to write historical fiction novels, as there are many people (myself included) who will nitpick to no end. However, I do understand that historical fiction is a sub-genre of fiction, not history. I would certainly suggest reading the excellent material in the back of the book where Ms. Leveen makes clear what is historically accurate, what is fictional, and some more background.

Related Reading:
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdes

  • 496 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062107909

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About manoflabook

  • Thanks for taking the time to review THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER. I appreciate your comments about the line I’ve chosen to walk in writing historical fiction. I’m trained as a researcher, and I’m always as careful as I can be to avoid anachronisms as I weave the facts into an engaging story. As for “Ellen Bond,” although the claim that Bowser used the name Ellen Bond–and that she set fire to the Confederate White House–is frequently repeated, I’ve never found any well-cited source suggesting this is true. Bowser did use pseudo­nyms at various points, but there’s no documentation that Ellen Bond was one of them.

    The New York Times will be running a piece soon that I’ve written about some of Bowser’s pseudonyms, and about why so little is known about her. It involves new research, including a diary entry and a letter documenting Bowser’s postwar meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe. If you’re interested, I can post a link here when it goes live on the New York Times website … sounds like you’re a history geek like me and will want to know more.