Summary and book reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

By Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser
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  • Paperback: May 2012,
    496 pages.

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Book Summary

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 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.

Paperback original

Prologue

Mama was always so busy. Busy tending to Old Master Van Lew and Mistress Van Lew, Young Master John, Miss Bet. But she was never too busy to riddle me. She said it was the first kind of learning she could give me, and the most important, too. Be alert, Mama meant. See the world around you. Find what you seek, because it's already there.

"I spy with my little eye, where the bird goes when he doesn't fly," Mama said one mid-day, her words floating on the Richmond heat as we carried empty cookpots through the yard to the kitchen. I sing-songed the riddle to myself, eyes half closed against the bright Virginia sun. What could she mean, with no birds in sight? Then I spotted it, set in the crook of the big dogwood.

"Oh, Mama, a bird's nest!"

But Mama frowned. "I made a rhyme to riddle you, Mary El. You're old enough to rhyme me back your answer."

Whenever Mama said you're old enough, it meant something new was coming. Something hard I had to do, no matter...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The novel opens with two epigrams, one from Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other from Maria Stewart. What specific aspects of Mary's life confirm Emerson's belief that all of history is in one person, and that each person's life reflects national crises? Stewart, who was herself a black abolitionist, wondered if a woman might be the one to end slavery. In what ways does being female allow Mary and Bet to take on their great roles in history?

  2. Often when we think of slavery, we think of plantations. How does slavery in Richmond differ from plantation slavery? How is it similar? What did you find most surprising about the lives of slaves and of free blacks in Richmond?

  3. Though both of Mary's parents were born in slavery, their experiences ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Lois Leveen takes a little-known historical figure and makes her come alive in The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Working carefully researched events and other historical figures together with richly nuanced creative details and fictional elements, Leveen weaves a wonderfully engaging tapestry that honors her subject and treats difficult material with sensitivity and honesty. Through Mary's experiences, the reader is compelled to confront the usual ideas about North and South, slave and free, and comes away with a completely different understanding of this complex period of history. This is historical fiction at its best: it teaches, enlightens, delights, challenges, and entertains (DawnEllen J).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

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.

Kirkus Reviews

Deftly balancing history, romance and adventure, Leveen honors the life and historical importance of a brave, resourceful woman.

Teresa Majury, Newbooks

Leveen excels at weaving together all the strands of a very complex story set during a complicated period in history... An intriguing, engaging read that will be an excellent catalyst for reading group discussion.

Author Blurb Brunonia Barry, bestselling author of The Lace Reader
Masterfully written, The Secrets of Mary Bowser shines a new light onto our country's darkest history.

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

Book Group Books

A fascinating read about slavery, war and love. Lots to enjoy here, plenty to learn too and good scope for debate.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

Great historical fiction
This novel drew me in from the start, and kept my interest right through to the end. It deals with real people that I am sure most readers have never heard of; in fact, I was never really aware of the spy ring in the South that assisted the North ...   Read More

Louise J

A Novel You Won't Soon Forget!!
This is the true story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who spied for the Union during the Civil War. This was a well-researched book filled with familiar and imagined historical events. Lois Leveen has written a novel that will grab you in at the...   Read More

Diane S.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser
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 ...   Read More

Karla M. (Sicklerville, NJ)

Glad I Kept Reading
I found the first portion of the book a little slow but I'm glad I stuck it out because this was a great book. The story is wonderfully told and all the characters are so full of life you can't help but feel like you are right there with them. I love...   Read More

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Two Unlikely Spies: Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew

Lois Leveen's debut novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the real-life story of Mary Bowser, a woman born into slavery in 1839 in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew, a merchant. After Van Lew passed away, his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, freed his slaves and paid for Mary Bowser to get an education. She also helped procure a servant job for Mary in President Jefferson Davis's Confederate White House.

Mary Bowser According to NPR's article entitled, "The Spy Who Served Me," when the two women spent time together, they weren't simply "exchanging recipes." They were, in fact, spies:

"Crazy Bet" was the spymaster and Mary Bowser was one of her best agents - part of a spy ring - white, black, slave and free - made up of servants, ...

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