The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel

The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel

by Lois Leveen


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The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel by Lois Leveen

“Masterfully written, The Secrets of Mary Bowser shines a new light onto our country’s darkest history.”
—Brunonia Barry, bestselling author of The Lace Reader

“Packed with drama, intrigue, love, loss, and most of all, the resilience of a remarkable heroine….What a treat!”
—Kelly O'Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062107909
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/15/2012
Edition description: Original
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 163,524
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.76(h) x 1.25(d)

About 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.

What People are Saying About This

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!”

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.”

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.”

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
beachlover20855 More than 1 year ago
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
curious1MP More than 1 year ago
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
mamasjoy More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Thoroughly enjoyed
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Maryka More than 1 year ago
The Secrets of Mary Bowser reveals much about this fascinating woman born into slavery--her parents' struggles to maintain a family, the sacrifices they make for their daughter, and Mary's personal journey. Lois Leveen's fine writing and research on the times, places, and characters bring this story to life in all its sadness and glory. Highly recommended.
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jodyJM More than 1 year ago
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.
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Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
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
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Daisy is locked out
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sits on the tip of a tall tree looking at everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It wont help if you shoot it. Just back away from it and it wont be able to attack you.