The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel

( 24 )

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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  • The Secrets of Mary Bowser
    The Secrets of Mary Bowser  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Leveen's rich debut is a fictional retelling of the life of Mary El, the tenacious Virginian slave turned spy. Mary was born into bondage, but when her master dies, his daughter Bet, a fierce abolitionist, frees Mary and her family and sends the young woman to school in Philadelphia. There, Mary discovers the pervasiveness of prejudice—even in the North—and begins shuttling slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, work that tests Mary's courage and ability to function in dangerous situations. But when her mother dies, Mary must return to Virginia to care for her ailing father. As the Civil War approaches, Mary courts and weds Wilson Bowser, and with the help of Bet, poses as an illiterate slave in the house of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, using her photographic memory to relay crucial information to Union forces. Deftly integrating historical research into this gripping tale of adventure, love, and national conflict, Leveen brings Mary to life and evenhandedly reveals the humanity on both sides of America's deadliest war. (May)
Oregonian
“Lois Leveen has written a captivating novel...[she] demonstrates considerable skill bringing the historical period to life. Mary’s world is nuanced and complicated, but the reader is thoroughly drawn into it, never lost. The narrative voice carries with it a seamless authority, rare in novels of this type.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Secrets of Mary Bowser is not only fascinating reading, but also historical fiction of the highest caliber.”
DailyCandy.com
“Author Lois Leveen’s meticulously researched historical fiction is best consumed with sweet tea and a porch swing.”
Statesman Journal (Oregon)
“This novel will sweep you into the world of Mary Bowser without making you feel as if you’re sitting in school instead of on the beach.”
Brunonia Barry
“Masterfully written, The Secrets of Mary Bowser shines a new light onto our country’s darkest history. Balancing fire and grace, the story of Mary Bowser is an ethical journey we won’t soon forget, one that takes us from hatred to courage to love.”
Naseem Rakha
“Told with clarity, confidence, and courage, The Secrets of Mary Bowser illuminates an untold and important story about slavery, the Civil War, and the role of women in achieving emancipation. A riveting and powerful book.”
-Kelly O'Connor McNees
The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a good old-fashioned historical novel packed with drama, intrigue, love, loss, and most of all, the resilience of a remarkable heroine who forges her own destiny from the first page. What a treat!”
Kirkus Reviews
Set free by her mistress, can a young slave find true freedom up North? Or will she discover that there is more than one way to be enslaved? Leveen's debut novel brings to life the true story of a young slave woman. Her abolitionist-leaning mistress, Bet Van Lew, sets Mary and her mother, Minnie, free. Yet Mary's father and Minnie's husband, Lewis, remains enslaved as a blacksmith to his master. So freedom proves more difficult than either woman had anticipated. Under Virginia law, Mary and her mother may stay in the Commonwealth only a year after being set free. After that mark, either could be resold into slavery. Unwilling to leave her husband, Minnie chooses a dangerous path of deception, pretending to still be a slave. Hoping for a better life for their daughter, Lewis and Minnie send her North to be educated in Philadelphia. Once north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Mary swiftly learns that racism persists, even among the freed slaves themselves. She gains a fine education and deep friendships. Yet Mary must also learn to negotiate the bewildering rules of living in a racist and classist society: being exiled to the Negro benches, enduring unwarranted insults and having to hide her own family's secrets. After her mother dies, Mary realizes that time is wasting. She begins to see clearly that true freedom depends on everyone being free. After rejecting a flattering--yet essentially insulting--marriage proposal, Mary discovers the courage to return to Virginia for her father, to work with the Underground Railroad for other slaves and even to spy for the Union army. And along the way, she finds true love. Deftly balancing history, romance and adventure, Leveen honors the life and historical importance of a brave, resourceful woman.
Kelly O'Connor McNees
"The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a good old-fashioned historical novel packed with drama, intrigue, love, loss, and most of all, the resilience of a remarkable heroine who forges her own destiny from the first page. What a treat!"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062107909
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/15/2012
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 192,468
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Award-winning author Lois Leveen's work has appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and in literary journals and anthologies. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(13)

4 Star

(6)

3 Star

(3)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(1)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 20, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen brilliantly brings att

    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 struggle to maintain their dignity and skillfully negotiate for Mary to learn to read and do her numbers. But when Mary is 12 years-old the unexpected happens – that is both a blessing and tragic to the family. Mary and Minerva are given their freedom, and according to Virginia law as freed blacks they have to leave the state of Virginia. Now it is not slavery that will separate the family, but freedom. After much consideration and the willing help of Bet, head-strong abolitionist daughter of Old Master, Minerva will remain in Richmond and her freedom papers will not be filed. Mary will go to Philadelphia to get her education. Mary adjusts to life in Philadelphia and matures into a race-conscious woman. Mary defies the law, returns to Richmond to care for her ailing father and continue her emancipation work.

    This is a masterfully, well-researched book that deftly explores the real and the imagined of familiar historical events acutely reminding us of the ordinary, often visible people who survive and grow despite the odds against them. In Mary, we have the authentic innocence of a narrator speaking in a calm and confident manner experiencing first-hand the privileges and harsh realities of freedom in the North – race, class, gender and religious discrimination, and the emotional cost of freedom. This book takes the refreshing perspective at looking at urban slavery – the co-existing of both enslaved (house slaves and skilled slaves) and free blacks in Richmond. While at times the pacing dragged or it felt like reading a research paper, the book never steers from showing how blacks (enslaved and freed) went about their everyday lives with much dignity and fought slavery in both little and big ways.

    I applaud Leveen for writing this untold story that has been erased from our collective memory. As the saying goes – the only thing new is the history yet to learn. I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and stories of extraordinary women.

    This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes.

    Reviewed by Beverly
    APOOO Literary Review

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 2, 2012

    Highly recommended. Informative. Fascinating story.

    Having been born and raised in Richmond, VA in the '40s and '50s, I saw racism up close and personal. ( I am white.) I hated it and hated that my beautiful city had such an ugly facet. This book has shown me a part of Richmond's history of which I was totally unaware. I embrace the courage, tenacity, and spirit of Mary Bowser whose legacy I see (and rejoice in) in so many African-American women today. It is a fine book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 27, 2012

    4-stars rating

    As an African American woman, each time I read slave narratives, or historical accounts of African Americans making a difference in history, my soul soars with pride, but never without excruciating pain.

    Mary Bowser was a real person. A woman who experienced a great deal of pain and degradation as an African American woman. Ironically, this very brave woman was able to glean facts and information to help others. How courageous of her!

    This book should be read by any student of history. Ms. Leveen's book highlights the bravery, the intelligence of an ordinary, but brave African American woman. Leveen depicts a woman making certain decisions that would help others during a painful time in this country. I applaud the author! Curious1MP

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 26, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Based on a True Story

    The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Lev­een is a his­tor­i­cal fic­tion 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.

    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.

    The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Lev­een is an inter­est­ing book about an inter­est­ing time. There is very lit­tle known about Mary Bowser, a free slave who went back to spy for the Union at Jef­fer­son Davis’ house dur­ing the Civil War.

    Very lit­tle is known about Mary Bowser (even though her name as a spy was Ellen Bond, which didn’t make it into this book), so 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. Ms. Lev­een wrote her main char­ac­ters as uplift­ing indi­vid­uals, liv­ing hard lives dur­ing hard times.

    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 sub­genre 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

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2013

    Amy to all

    Daisy is locked out

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Whirlwind

    It wont help if you shoot it. Just back away from it and it wont be able to attack you.

    0 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Kirby

    Sits on the tip of a tall tree looking at everyone.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    Pewdiepie

    Pewdiepie isn't Tobuscus...TobyGames is Tobuscus...

    0 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Zelda

    Sits at the highest point of a tree

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Tails

    (Flies in) GUYS GUYS I NEED SPNIC HERE NOW!!!!

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    GLaDOS

    GLaDOS: I am a computer. My metal structure is hidden away and early indestructable. -The electronized female voice says- (To Tobuscus: Lol... but this is a video game rp. That doesn't rely count...)

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Luma

    Mornin!

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2013

    Link

    Aims a arrow at one of sonics emralds

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 13, 2012

    This woman is so involved that she practically won the Civil War

    This woman is so involved that she practically won the Civil War with her efforts. I found the book to be mildly entertaining, but much too much was surmised about Mary's life. I would not recommend it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews

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