The Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With the rich detail of Cold Mountain, the strong female bonds of The Help, and the untold history of The Warmth of Other Suns, comes a powerful debut novel about the secrets a woman keeps, and those she will risk everything to tell. 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 Con...

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Title:The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Author:Lois Leveen
Rating:
Edition Language:English

The Secrets of Mary Bowser Reviews

  • Jeanette

    Mary Bowser was a real person, a freed slave who spied for the Union during the Civil War. She was highly educated, but played the "ignorant darky," posing as a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Letting the white people believe she was illiterate allowed her access to the war correspondence on Davis's desk. She had a photographic memory, so she would memorize the information, then convert it to code to be sent north to the Union leaders.

    The first half of the book cover

    Mary Bowser was a real person, a freed slave who spied for the Union during the Civil War. She was highly educated, but played the "ignorant darky," posing as a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Letting the white people believe she was illiterate allowed her access to the war correspondence on Davis's desk. She had a photographic memory, so she would memorize the information, then convert it to code to be sent north to the Union leaders.

    The first half of the book covers Mary's life before the Civil War, first as a slave in Richmond, Virginia, then as a free person in Philadelphia, where she was sent at age 12 for her education. When the war began, she chose to return to Richmond, risking everything to serve the cause of freedom. The second half covers that Civil War period. Mary Bowser was incredibly brave for one so young, working with the Underground Railroad as a teen and then as a spy in her early twenties.

    If you like to use fiction to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of history, this book is worth a little patience in the reading. I recommend looking at the bonus material in the back of the book before beginning the novel. It provides valuable context, and there are even some photos of buildings and people important to the story.

    Readers who prefer strict adherence to fact in their historical fiction should note that this is an imaginative reconstruction of Mary Bowser's life. Records were not kept of the lives of black people, so the author took what little was known and used her expertise as a historian to fill in the rest. At the back of the book, Leveen does make clear specifically what is known and what had to be imagined.

  • Cynthia

    Remedy to “The Help”

    “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” is a page turner. The setting is antebellum Virginia, Mary is born a slave but is set free, and she heads north but later chooses to return to Virginia in order to spy for the Union during the Civil War Mary Bowser was a real person however, since few details are known of her activities Leveen let’s her imagination run free, since the author’s area of specialization is American History she bases the action on that knowledge. The very best part of

    Remedy to “The Help”

    “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” is a page turner. The setting is antebellum Virginia, Mary is born a slave but is set free, and she heads north but later chooses to return to Virginia in order to spy for the Union during the Civil War Mary Bowser was a real person however, since few details are known of her activities Leveen let’s her imagination run free, since the author’s area of specialization is American History she bases the action on that knowledge. The very best part of the book is that it’s written from an African American perspective. Mary’s motivation for her brave acts is to make her life, and others who are still enslaved, better. They act in their own behalf. This is in contrast to the perspective in “The Help”. Don’t get me wrong I LOVED “The Help” but it was so refreshing to read and African American’s perspective. There’s lots of history here. You’ll find yourself being reminded and/or reading more details about historical happenings such as the race riots that occurred in the North when whites attacked blacks because they resented feeling forced to fight a war to free southern blacks. Then, as the war wears on in the South, and whites were either dead or already fighting Jefferson Davis was faced with arming slaves to fight which contradicted the South’s stance that the slaves were children who needed whites to tell them what to do. And Mary was in the heart of all this, pulling strings of her own as well as keeping Lincoln informed.

    Though there’s lots of history this is also a personal story. We read about Mary’s early childhood with her nuclear family and later about the many friends she meets in the North, we learn about their work in the Underground Railroad, and what life was like in the North before the war. It’s a coming of age story with the Civil War as backdrop. This is Leveen’s first book. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for her second. So many contemporary books are short on plot. This not the case with “The Secrets of Mary Bowser”.

    4.5/5

  • Kate

    Bear with me for a moment.

    One of the best tools used in the management of forests is prescribed burns - where parts of the forest, thick with understory, dried needles, and combustible materials are set aflame. If done properly, the resulting environment is richer, safer, and healthier for new growth and wildlife habitats. If done poorly, well, it all goes to hell.

    I read a lot. Since I was four, I have basically read anything that my eyes fell upon. There are a lot of ideas, details, and random

    Bear with me for a moment.

    One of the best tools used in the management of forests is prescribed burns - where parts of the forest, thick with understory, dried needles, and combustible materials are set aflame. If done properly, the resulting environment is richer, safer, and healthier for new growth and wildlife habitats. If done poorly, well, it all goes to hell.

    I read a lot. Since I was four, I have basically read anything that my eyes fell upon. There are a lot of ideas, details, and random bits of information in my head (including this bit about forest management).

    Every once in a while (less frequently as I get older/read more), a book comes along that sets my brain afire and the resulting ideas are richer and more complex than before. This book was my prescribed burn for all of the books I have read and things that I have thought about slavery and race in America.

    I cannot even begin to tell you all of the new things that I am thinking in this little ole review, but after you read it, let's absolutely talk.

    There was only one false note for me in the entire thing: the Forrest Gump treatment of the early to mid-Civil War period. For those chapters, Mary Bowser was everywhere important and making all of the most important decisions. Because this book is based on a real person of which we only know a few solid details, I chose to overlook that treatment and consider it the author introducing a few of the many possibilities for what could have actually happened. It was sort of like a brief Choose Your Own Adventure book (of which I always read all of the variations anyways).

    Stop reading this review and go read the book already.

  • Jane

    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 nothin

    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.

    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.

  • Kathy

    Great historical fiction. It grabs your interest from the start, and keeps it. Based on the life of a real person, Mary Bowser, who was born a slave in Virginia, and freed by her owner. She was sent north to Philadelphia for an education, where she became involved with the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War was imminent, she went back south to spy on Jeff Davis in the "Gray House" for the duration of the war.

    Although it is all about black and white relations, there are no truly black or wh

    Great historical fiction. It grabs your interest from the start, and keeps it. Based on the life of a real person, Mary Bowser, who was born a slave in Virginia, and freed by her owner. She was sent north to Philadelphia for an education, where she became involved with the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War was imminent, she went back south to spy on Jeff Davis in the "Gray House" for the duration of the war.

    Although it is all about black and white relations, there are no truly black or white characters. The slave owners are not all totally evil, and the slaves are not all pure and good. And relations are even more complicated among the free people.

    One of my favorite parts was the critiques of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN at the "colored" Philadelphia's Gilbert Lyceum lecture hall. I also appreciated the use of the word "colored". Although I have always thought it was a stupid term, it was the polite word that people used in those days, so for the sake of accuracy, that's what any of the people of the time would say.

    There is no lecturing on furniture or clothing styles, but you quickly pick up information about what people are sleeping on, and what different people are wearing. Half the fun of historical fiction is learning about a different way of life. The other half is a great story. This book has both to perfection.

  • Camie

    Based on the true story of Mary Bowser a young house slave who was freed and sent north to Philadelphia by Bet the daughter of the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond. Though she and her mother were both freed her father was owned by another family and was not, so the decision was made that her parents would stay and Mary would go it alone on the journey. Later as the Civil War heats up, she will jeopardize her freedom and her life by returning to Virginia to help her ailing father and to aid Bet

    Based on the true story of Mary Bowser a young house slave who was freed and sent north to Philadelphia by Bet the daughter of the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond. Though she and her mother were both freed her father was owned by another family and was not, so the decision was made that her parents would stay and Mary would go it alone on the journey. Later as the Civil War heats up, she will jeopardize her freedom and her life by returning to Virginia to help her ailing father and to aid Bet Van Lew with the growing abolition movement. According to a brave and brilliant plan she is able to pose as a house slave in the Confederate White House of President Jefferson Davis. Because of the general assumption that slaves were illiterate , and treated as if they were almost invisible ... Mary is able to discover and pass on incredible amounts of information to others helping the Union command. Though the book is well written it's a sad fact that much of the book had to be imagined as there were simply very few actual records kept regarding slaves as well as women during this time in history. It's still a good read about a heroine who should finally be recognized. It seems almost stranger than fiction that even as the confederates learned their secrets were being leaked they never considered the true source of how it was happening even a remote possibility! June pick - On The Southern Literary Trail 4.5 stars

  • Judy

    A compelling storyline of a young girl born into slavery whose mistress sends her to the North to be educated and to obtain her freedom. Mary Bowser returns South to be near her enslaved father and proceeds to play a significant role in the emancipation of slaves through her employment as a maid at Jefferson Davis's home. This is a nice story if you can suspend reality and just kick back and enjoy. If not, it will be difficult, as believability is strained at many junctures such as

    A compelling storyline of a young girl born into slavery whose mistress sends her to the North to be educated and to obtain her freedom. Mary Bowser returns South to be near her enslaved father and proceeds to play a significant role in the emancipation of slaves through her employment as a maid at Jefferson Davis's home. This is a nice story if you can suspend reality and just kick back and enjoy. If not, it will be difficult, as believability is strained at many junctures such as

    Also, the historical aspect of the story is suspect in my judgment due to the Union's entry into Richmond with handsome soldiers wearing nice, clean uniforms being one of the glaring oversights in research. I know the Confederate soldiers did suffer more from hunger and lack of warm, intact clothing, but there were plenty of hungry, tattered Union soldiers also. However, having said that the image of Richmond's slave population being freed by the Union soldiers was a nice picture and taken in its fictional context somewhat acceptable.

    Robin Miles' narration of this 16 hour, 25 minute book was decent although not exceptional. I wouldn't recommend the book for its narration, but certainly wouldn't criticize her narration either. It was just middle-of-the-road, neither excellent or poor.

    So, overall, I found the book pleasant and would only recommend to my friends who are looking for a purely fictional escape.

  • Sue

    This is a very interesting story of one young woman's life in and out of slavery and also as an active participant in pro-Union espionage in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Bowser's existence has been authenticated as has that of her prior owner, an ardent abolitionist who freed her own slaves and also participated in espionage in the city during the war. So why am I still left with a somewhat unsettled feeling as I read?

    I read historical fiction frequently. In fact it is one of my

    This is a very interesting story of one young woman's life in and out of slavery and also as an active participant in pro-Union espionage in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Bowser's existence has been authenticated as has that of her prior owner, an ardent abolitionist who freed her own slaves and also participated in espionage in the city during the war. So why am I still left with a somewhat unsettled feeling as I read?

    I read historical fiction frequently. In fact it is one of my favorite genres. But what is this book? It is well researched history with a very large component of fiction. For some reason, I am uncomfortable with this book, even while enjoying reading it. Perhaps I would have been personally happier if it had been written as pure historical fiction with an afterward relating it to Mary Bowser. Or maybe I just ate something that disagreed with me and made me ornery this week.

  • Diane Barnes

    3.5 stars. A well-written, compelling book that captured the sense and atmosphere of Philadelphia and Richmond, both before and during the Civil War. The author pointed out the racial prejudice that existed in the North, as well as the cruelty of slavery in the South. The novel was based on the real Mary Bowser, who was a Union spy who worked as a slave in the Richmond home of Jefferson Davis, hiding the fact that she was a freed slave who could read and write.

    Lois Leveen admits that some things

    3.5 stars. A well-written, compelling book that captured the sense and atmosphere of Philadelphia and Richmond, both before and during the Civil War. The author pointed out the racial prejudice that existed in the North, as well as the cruelty of slavery in the South. The novel was based on the real Mary Bowser, who was a Union spy who worked as a slave in the Richmond home of Jefferson Davis, hiding the fact that she was a freed slave who could read and write.

    Lois Leveen admits that some things were omitted from this story, and many more things imagined because of the lack of written history about Mary Bowser. But she did her research, and it rings true.

  • Marialyce

    Well I am finished but the question remains did I finish the book? Well, the answer is no. I just gave it up after reading half of it.

    Sometimes no matter how you fight the good fight to enjoy, to learn, to like a story, you just can't. Was it the writing that frustrated me? Perhaps as I found a topic which should have been interesting, well....in a word boring. Could I feel for any of the characters? Again the answer would have to be in the negative. Did I care that this was partially based on f

    Well I am finished but the question remains did I finish the book? Well, the answer is no. I just gave it up after reading half of it.

    Sometimes no matter how you fight the good fight to enjoy, to learn, to like a story, you just can't. Was it the writing that frustrated me? Perhaps as I found a topic which should have been interesting, well....in a word boring. Could I feel for any of the characters? Again the answer would have to be in the negative. Did I care that this was partially based on fact? Again my answer would be no.

    Sometimes you just have to know when to fold them. It comes when you dread to pick up the book and read. It comes when you finally admit to yourself that this is tedium and there are literally tons of books out there that will engage you, enlighten you, and more importantly thrill you. This was not one of them.

    So, I have finished this book, well, not in the true sense, but in the sense that I just could not subject myself to one more chapter, one more happening, and of course one more word. Sorry to say that I gave up, but happy to say that I did try.

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