The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel

The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel

by Lois Leveen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062107909
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/15/2012
Series: P.S.
Edition description: Original
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 167,208
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. 39 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.
bjmitch on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Mary Bowser was a real woman who lived in the mid 19th century in Richmond, VA. Her owners, the Van Lew family, gave her her freedom and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. Later she returned to Richmond, married a free black man, and spied for the North during the Civil War while her husband spirited slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad. Mary eventually got a job as a maid in the house of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, a perfect position from which to send valuable information to the north. Davis knew someone was getting information out from the Gray House but Mary, as a slave, was invisible to him; he never suspected her.This is a short synopsis of the plot which doesn't do justice to the personality and determination of the main characters or the undercurrent of fear that runs throughout. In this fictional account of Mary Bowser's life, we follow her to Philadelphia and back and to the end of the war.Mary's former owner, Bet Van Lew, is one of the most intriguing characters. She's a dyed in the wool abolitionist and yet she really doesn't have a clue what it means to be a slave. Her color blindness is naive and touching, but she also manages to ignore danger to accomplish some valuable work getting news out, saving slaves, and bringing much needed food in from her outlying farm. Even more impressive is that this spinster from a privileged family never complains of or even reveals the heavy sacrifices she must make during the war.Mary is of course the character around whom everything revolves. She has a prodigious talent for memorizing. She is strong and inventive but not superwoman. Occasionally her fears overcome her courage but she pulls herself together and does what she has to do. Her story will pull you in and won't let you go.This is definitely going to be on my Best Books of 2012 List.
Beamis12 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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 the characters of Mary, her mom and Dad and Bets, a white woman who risked much in Virginia, for the abolishment of an institution she found unjust. Loved reading this story and would loved to have met many of these people.
crustycruz on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Lois Leveen tells the enticing story of slavery and espionage in The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Mary Bowser was always a bright girl, her mother always assured her that God had big plans for her even though she was born into slavery. Living with their masters the Van Lews in Richmond Virginia, Mary's life was that of a typical Virginian slave, she was the property of Miss Bet Van Lew until it was decided otherwise. Mary was a very bright girl with an exceptional memory and a ton of courage, Miss Bet notices Mary's brightness and aids her in becoming educated and cultivating her intelligence by making her free slave and sending her to Philadelphia. Through a series of events Mary finds herself back in Virginia pretending to be slave and in the home of the confederate President Davis. Constantly risking her life Mary ensures that certain information that may aid the Union falls into the hands of the right people while continuing to help the slaves escape the South. It is an extremely captivating book with various insights into life in the North and South and the treatment of slaves. It also tells a dramatic story of survival and strength
Carolee888 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I think this book is one of the best historical fictions for 2012. Mary Bowser was real person, a freed slave who put her mark on history. With very few details about Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen brings to life a story of a woman with courage, intelligence and determination. I was sad to finish this page turner. Born a slave in Richmond Virginia, she lived with her mother, in the attic of the Van Lew mansion. Her mother taught her riddles and later how to read by drawing the letters in the ashes of the fireplace. She taught Mary how to survive while living the double life of a slave. Her father lived in his small cabin on a nearby property of a different slave owner. Even though her family could only be together once a week, Mary realized that she was very privileged to have both parents. So many slaves had been forcefully cut off from their families and forced to live among complete strangers. Even babies were sold away from their mothers to fatten the owner¿s purse. Bet, the spinster daughter in the Van Lew family had been educated up North and learned ideas about slavery that went against her father¿s. But she was still very strict about getting everything just so. Mary couldn¿t trust her because she did not really know what it was like to be a slave. But Bet changes in this book as time requires her to start making sacrifices and feeling the effects of starvation and poverty. One afternoon, Bet was reading a newspaper article to her mother as she usually did. Mary latched on to one of the stories and was able to recite word for word, even though she could not read. Mary¿s mother was quiet then but later revealed to Mary that it was as a sign. Her mother knew that someday, Mary¿s gift of a strong memory would be important. But just like any slave, she would have to pretend to be ignorant and hide her gift. Mary was forced to prove that she hadn¿t read the article or she would have been severely punished. Bet Van Lew later paid from her inheritance for Mary and her mother and sent Mary to Philadelphia for an education. When the time came, Mary would use her gift of an excellent memory and her wonderful education to help slaves to become free. I highly recommend this book to all interested in the history.
slanger89 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Centered around a strong female African American character, this book provides a story filled with inspiration and hope. Mary is a slave in Richmond, Virginia who is set free and sent North to receive an education by her wealthy mistress, Bet Van Lew. Mary leaves her beloved parents behind in Virginia to receive her education and realizes that she wants more than to just be free and educated; she wants to make a difference and help end slavery. So when Mary is given the chance to return to Richmond and turn spy for the Union against President Jefferson Davis, she takes it. Along the way, Mary is confronted with many difficult choices, discovers love and loss, and risks everything she has to help end slavery. A wonderful, inspirational story the reader will enjoy while also learning something about American history
Lorelai2 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The Secrets of Mary Bowser tells a based on a true story narrative of a young woman born into slavery in Virginia and due to her amazing talent for total recall,is given an opportunity to gain an education and use her skills in ways she couldn't have imagined. Mary is sent to Philadelphia as a child by her mistress Bet Van Lew and despite missing her parents terribly(they give up their chance at freedom in order to stay together yet want the best for their daughter)she flourishes intellectually and emotionally. However,even in the North,Mary still finds racial oppression which motivates her to aid the Union forces by going back to the South as a spy in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Lois Leveen gives us a remarkable novel of courage that should open more than a few eyes about the unsung heroes of the Civil War.
JaneSteen on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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 nothing else is known about the real Mary, Leveen is free to imagine Mary's story based on what is known about the lives of slaves and free coloreds in the era. And she does a thorough, professional job of it, giving Mary a voice that is distinctly 19th century (to the point where modern readers may have to use a dictionary in places) and carefully incorporating historical events into the narrative.It's hard to find fault with a book that is well written and edited, meticulously researched and based on a fascinating topic. But I'm going to anyway. I found myself thinking that this is exactly the kind of novel New York loves: the writer has writing credits, academic and literary credibility, and a platform. She's a Serious Writer (whereas I am the first to acknowledge my amateur status). Am I suffering from a case of sour grapes? I hope not.My problem with this novel is that it just didn't catch fire for me. It should have done: there was so much there, so much incident and life-threatening situations, life and death and love and all the rest. And yet I found it extremely easy to put down after a few pages (and the word 'boring' was beginning to float around my skull at about the two-thirds mark, although I really don't want to apply that label as I think many readers will love this novel). The problem, for me, was that at times the novel took on that dramatized-textbook feel that you get when the writer has really taken pains to get the thing historically accurate. When we moved more into Mary's story, I was happy enough: Leveen handles dialogue well in these sections. And then Mary would be listening to a conversation between real-life historical figures, and the whole thing would become a bit stilted, especially as it was necessary for these characters to explain what was happening.Call me a philistine, but I'd rather have had something livelier and less historically elucidating. The Secrets of Mary Bowser functions really well as a historically accurate corrective to the Gone-With-The-Wind romance of devoted servants and noble masters, but (whisper it low) I re-read GWTW until the covers fell off, but I won't do the same to Mary. Nevertheless, an interesting read which will be enthusiastically received by the writing establishment. I predict NYT bestseller status.
dgmlrhodes on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book is based on the true story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who returns to Virginia to spy on the confederates. In order to do this she risks everything and must give up her freedom to do so. The book is an amazing story of an amazing person. It covers the story from an African American viewpoint during the civil war. This is an important but frequently overlooked perspective. Mary is the epitome of a strong female lead and her beliefs and character shine through the novel. This is an amazing debut novel from an author I can't wait to read more of. Reader received a complimentary copy from Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
Gwnfkt12 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
First off, I need to say that I would absolutely recommend this book to everyone I know. It was engaging, thoughtful, well-written, and well-researched. Best of all, it makes slavery and the Civil War come to life in a way that is both horrifying and eye-opening. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a novel that grows along with its characters. As the young Mary learns what it means to be a slave in Richmond, so does the reader learn about slavery. As Mary grows up, is manumitted, gets an education in Philadelphia, and discovers her role working towards the abolition of slavery, it feels as though the reader is experiencing these events right along side her. As with a few other reviewers of this book, I did also notice from time to time that this novel has a somewhat textbook voice to it, where it loses the dramatic, heartfelt spirit of Mary Bowser and took on the teaching voice of the author. But fortunately these moments were few and far between and the main character's life-in-the-balance story kept me reading. However, the most powerful aspect of this book - not to overlook or give any less credit to the impeccable research, the genius character descriptions, or the brilliant dialogue between characters - is that on some level this is a true story. While not every detail of Mary's life is based on fact, the life here depicted is entirely possible, even as extravagant as it sometimes seemed in the book.
mckait on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The life of Mary Bowser was anything but dull. She was born intoslavery. The only child of a slave who worked for the Van Lew familyand a blacksmith who was owned by another man. Her parents wanted herlife to better than their own had been, like any parent today. Itwas a bit of good fortune that the Van Lew's family, especially thedaughter Bet, had different views of slavery than most of their neighbors.Their views were so different, that Mary, her mother who was called AuntMinnie by most of those who knew her, and the other slaves in their householdwere given their freedom.Freedom was good, but the laws of the day prevented Mary and her mother fromstaying in their hometown of Richmond for more than a year after they werefreed. Try as she might, Miss Bet, who was responsible for their freedom, coulddo nothing for Mary's father. His owner refused to see, and so he remained a slave.One thing that was within Bet's power, was to see to it that Mary received agood education. After giving her freedom, she gave Mary another great gift. Shesent her north to Philadelphia where she was sent to a school for others ofher race. Mary was an apt student, and had always had a remarkable memory.After graduating, and spending time as a teacher herself, events led to Marytraveling back home. In order to do so, she had to return to Miss Bet's homeand pretend to be a slave once again. Before many weeks passed, Fort Sumter wasfired on and the Civil War began. This led to what was the beginning of Mary'sdays as a spy.This is a good read. Recommended.
Onionspark on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A true story about a girl who grew up Mary El the slave in Richmond, Virginia, who became Mary Van Lew when freed and sent to school in Philadelphia, and became Mary Bowser when she returned to Richmond under the guise of a slave and entered the Confederate 'Grey House' to pass information to the Union forces.I really enjoyed this book, in particular the portrayal of Mary's former mistress Bet Van Lew. Many historical novels focusing on relations between black and white Americans attempt to create a white character that is so sympathetic that they feel too modern for the story - Bet Van Lew felt truer, not being perfect. You feel more like what she believes is true, and not that she's been transported back in time with modern sentiments.
loralu on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book chronicles the true story of the life of a slave girl, Mary, and her family in Richmond prior to and during the Civil War. The slaveowner family, originally from the north, has abolishioner tendencies and decides to provide a better life for Mary: freedom, private school, and fine cultural experiences. These new opportunities come at a cost, however, because not all of her family is freed. With new knowledge comes even greater responsibility and action against the Confederates to help the Union with the war.
grnpickle on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This was a very intriguing story of a freed slave turned spy for the Union army. The author does a beautiful job of weaving rich history into an appealing storyline. I feel like I've learned so much about another side of slavery and freed Africans than I've gotten in the many other books I've read on the topic. I especially like the author's notes at the end that talk about the "real" Mary Bowser.Very fascinating and informational without the bore of nonfiction.
lupoman on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book is a fascinating account of how a freed slave, Mary Bowser, spied for the North during the Civil War. Based on a true story, it is written in the form of fiction and narrated by Mary Bowser herself.I learned many things while reading this story; one being how difficult life was during the Civil War regardless on which side you were on. I recommend this book to any History buff or Civil War buff, this book was written for you!
Dawn1361 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
"The Secrets of Mary Bowser" by Lois Leveen captured a voice of the Civil War era that I had not previously heard and appeared to stay true to the moral questioning as experienced through the many layers of this society. Much time is spent developing Mary's character and it is easy to become drawn into her situation as an educated person first through the encouragement of Miss Bet and then through her experiences at formal education through Miss Bet, her benefactor. Leveen stays true to word choice that an educated Mary Bowser would use by not dumbing down the language. Mary's intensity, contraryness as her husband labels it, carries her throughout her life's mission and the passion by which she handles her relationships - with Miss Bet, Hattie, Wilson, and her parents. Mary seems to never lose focus in the midst of possible discovery nor lose focus of the ultimate goal - freedom for all regardless of race. Leveen has raised the genre of historical fiction. The "Author Insights and Extras" at the close of the book should not be missed. If the author's goal was not only to entertain but to spur readers into discovering more about this time period beyond battle fields, it is a job well done. This is a first novel for Lois Leveen and her name will be one that I will look for in the future.
hollysing on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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 slaves to the south. 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. A master of stealth, Mary must choose between what is right, rather than what is easy.A precocious child, Mary valued any opportunity to expand her knowledge. Visitors to the Richmond house brought 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.¿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 her own 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? 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. Mary¿s courage, resilience, and determination to make a difference are masterfully portrayed. Narrated by Mary, the dialogue rings true to slave culture of the nineteenth century and is thoroughly researched. Full of newspaper clippings, correspondence, real historical figures, imagined characters, and secret codes, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is historical fiction of the highest caliber.Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
bwightman on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program. I LOVED this book. I found the story about a young black girl freed from slavery and educated in the North just prior to the American civil war to be extremely compelling. The book is told from the perspective of Mary, a girl born into slavery in Richmond but freed by her owner and sent to Philadelphia for an education. There, she gets involved in the underground railroad and eventually returns to Richmond just before Virginia secedes from the Union. She works throughout the war as a spy for the Union, pretending to be a house slave for Jefferson Davis's wife.I was so drawn into this book that I found it difficult to put down, and I really didn't want the story to end. I found the characters to be well-developed, the story to be well-thought out and overall just a pleasure to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year 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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