Excerpt from The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

By Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Paperback: May 2012,
    496 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


Standing beside Papa, Mama seemed small in a way she never did when she bustled about the Van Lew mansion. Although she was not a heavy woman, she was fleshy in a way Papa was not. Her skin was even darker than his, so deep and rich and matte that whenever I saw flour, I wondered that it could be so light in color yet as sheenless as Mama's skin. Her brow and eyes curved down at the outside edges, making her seem determined and deliberate, whether her mouth was set straight across, lifted in one of her warm smiles, or, as was often the case, open in speech.

But for once, Papa was talking before Mama. "About time you ladies arrived. We got plenty to get done this fine morning." Papa spoke with the soft cadence of a Tidewater negro, though he hadn't seen the plantation where he was born since he was just a boy, when his first owner apprenticed him to Master Mahon, a Richmond blacksmith.

Mama's voice sounded different from Papa's, as sharp as though she and Old Master Van Lew had come from New York only the day before. "What can we have to do at this hour on a Sunday?"

"High time we return all that hospitality we been enjoying at the Bankses. I stopped over there on my way home last evening, invited them to come back here with us after prayer meeting."

"That whole brood, over here?" Mama eyed Papa's cabin. The four-room building had two entrances, Papa's on the left, and the one for Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, the elderly free couple who were his landlords, on the right. Even put together, Papa's two rooms were smaller than the attic quarters where Mama and I slept in the Van Lew mansion or the summer kitchen where the cook prepared the Van Lews' meals. One room had but a fireplace, Papa's meager supply of foodstuffs, and a small wooden table with three unmatched chairs. The other room held his sleeping pallet, a wash-basin set on an old crate, and a row of nails where he hung his clothes. The walls were unpainted, outside and in, the rough plank floors bare even in winter. The only adornments were the bright tattersall pattern of the osnaburg curtains Mama had sewn for the window and the metal cross Papa had crafted at Mahon's smithy.

The way Mama frowned, I could tell what she was thinking. Broad and tall, Henry Banks was a large presence all by himself, a free colored man who risked enslavement to minister to the slaves and free negroes who gathered each week in the cellar of his house. A two-story house big enough to accommodate him, his wife, and their six children. On those Sundays when Mama, Papa, and I were invited to stay after prayer meeting for dinner with their family, I savored the chance to amuse myself among all those children. So though Mama frowned at Papa, I was delighted to hear that the whole pack of youngsters was coming over today.

Besides, Papa was already soothing Mama. "It's warm enough to do our entertaining outside. All we got to do is borrow some chairs and plates and whatnot from the neighborhood, so it'll all be ready when we get back here." He smiled. "Honestly, folks'd think you married a fool, the way you carry on, Minerva."

To everyone else in Richmond, colored or white, Mama was Aunt Minnie. But Papa always called her Minerva. Whenever he said the name, she made a grand show of rolling her eyes or clucking her tongue. So I figured Mama wasn't nearly so put-upon as she pretended to be, planting her hands on her hips and shaking her head. "Don't you start with me at this hour, Lewis, don't you even start."

Papa winked at me. "Don't you dare stop, she means. And I ain't one to disobey her." With that he hustled me and Mama about, gathering up what we needed to serve our guests before he hurried us off to prayer meeting.

All through the morning's preaching and praising, my head buzzed in anticipation of hosting company. Each week, when Mama, Papa, and I walked back from meeting, I took care to lag a few paces behind, then come barreling up between them, my arms flailing in the air. Mama and Papa would each grab one of my hands and swing me forward, calling out, "Caught." Once caught, I walked the rest of the way between them, my hands in theirs, my face beaming. But this Sunday I was so excited to be with the other children I forgot all about getting caught until Papa turned around, his big eyes searching for me. I wrinkled my nose at him and went back to chattering with Elly, the oldest and prettiest of the Banks girls. When I looked ahead again, Papa was no longer watching me.

Excerpted from The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. Copyright © 2012 by Lois Leveen. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Hundred-Year House
    The Hundred-Year House
    by Rebecca Makkai
    Rebecca Makkai's sophomore novel The Hundred-Year House could just have easily been titled ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Valley of Amazement
    by Amy Tan
    "Mirror, Mirror on the wall
    I am my mother after all!"


    In my pre-retirement days as a professor ...
  • Book Jacket: A Man Called Ove
    A Man Called Ove
    by Fredrik Backman
    Reading A Man Called Ove was like having Christmas arrive early. Set in Sweden, this debut novel is ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

Tomlinson Hill
by Chris Tomlinson

Published Jul. 2014

Join the discussion!

Win this book!
Win The Angel of Losses

The Angel of Losses

"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E C H A Silver L

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.