BookBrowse Reviews The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen X
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Paperback:
    May 2012, 496 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers
Buy This Book

About this Book



Historical fiction about a former slave-turned-Civil-War-spy in Virginia, based on real events

With 21 out of 22 reviewers rating it 4 or 5 stars, Lois Leveen's debut novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is a top pick among BookBrowse readers! Here's what they have to say:

I highly recommend The Secrets of Mary Bowser. It is written with incredible detail that not only tells a story but teaches you about a period of history in the United States that still influences our lives today. Mary was an incredibly courageous woman who risked everything... A great read (Kimberli M)! This is one of the best books I've read in recent years. While it is fiction, based on a small bit of probable history, it reads like a true story told by a participant in an amazing part of American history. You have to admire Mary Bowser, who follows her heart to do the right thing, despite life-threatening danger (Mary P). Beautifully written, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is based on a real person who lived and witnessed a side of the Civil War not found in text books. The treatment of slaves in the South is heartbreaking. A new American Classic (Jane H)!

Some liked the historical elements in Leveen's novel:
Leveen's novel is revelatory (Mary P). I have read many books about slavery and the Civil War, but what sets this story apart from others is that it encompasses so much and does it so well. That Mary was an actual person and that the letters and newspaper articles are factual just adds to the wonderful telling of the story that unfolds (Diane S). This novel shows both sides of the slavery issue, what both white and black abolitionists went through, as well as how slaves were treated in the northern states that had already outlawed slavery (Diane S). Sometimes I hear people lamenting the state of things today, and I read a book like this and think how nice the world could be if we were all so brave and willing to make the kind of sacrifices Mary made (Rachel B).

While others were enthralled with her well-drawn characters:
I loved Mary, her mom and dad, and Bets, a white woman in Virginia who risks everything for the abolishment of an institution she finds unjust. I would have loved to have met many of these people (Diane S). 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 that Mary Bowser is such a strong female character - especially for the time period. I could see this book becoming a movie because the plot is so fascinating (Karla M). I realize the actions and conversations are fiction, based on facts, but the writer presents them in such a way that readers feel a part of the story (Jan M). This book is a classic example of why I love historical fiction. I truly enjoyed being able to see Mary go from a young slave girl to the free woman of color who was brilliantly educated and a shrewd spy during the Civil War (Sylvia J). The author effectively captures the tone and rhythms of the time in the dialogue and descriptions of people and places (Shirin M). Lois Leveen has a beautiful way with words, a "call-a-friend-and-read-aloud" voice. The characters are deep and rich (Barbie R).

However, a few readers found room for improvement:
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 (Karla M). Pacing was a little slow in the middle, but not enough to stop my reading, or be too distracting. Definitely recommended (Rachel B).

But overall, most reviewers were as enthusiastic as DawnEllen J:
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.

Who should read this book?
I'm not a good history student, so this book was a delightful experience for me. A history lesson made easy (Jan M)! I highly recommend this book to everyone, but in particular, I recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction (Sylvia J). I recommend this book whole-heartedly to book clubs and individuals who want an absorbing, thought-provoking read (Mary P). I believe that anyone interested in this country's history will enjoy it as well (Peggy K). Suggested for anyone who wishes to step into historical Richmond (Barbie R). Filled with historical facts, realistic characters, and an eye for social and cultural details, this book is a must read for those who enjoy historical fiction and spy novels (Shirin M).

This review first ran in the June 28, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • 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 $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Secrets of Mary Bowser, try these:

We have 10 read-alikes for The Secrets of Mary Bowser, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
More books by Lois Leveen
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Daughter in Exile
    Daughter in Exile
    by Bisi Adjapon
    In Bisi Adjapon's Daughter in Exile, main character Lola is a Ghanaian who lands in New York City in...
  • Book Jacket
    The Correspondents
    by Judith Mackrell
    In the introduction to The Correspondents, author Judith Mackrell points out that although there had...
  • Book Jacket: Exiles
    by Jane Harper
    Our First Impressions readers were thrilled to return to the world of Jane Harper's protagonist ...
  • Book Jacket: Spice Road
    Spice Road
    by Maiya Ibrahim
    Imani is a Shield, a warrior who is renowned for her fighting abilities and for her iron dagger, ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Nurse's Secret
by Amanda Skenandore
A fascinating historical novel based on the little-known story of America's first nursing school.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Once We Were Home
    by Jennifer Rosner

    From the author of The Yellow Bird Sings, a novel based on the true stories of children stolen in the wake of World War II.

  • Book Jacket

    The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise
    by Colleen Oakley

    A “wildly surprising, entertaining ride of a novel.”
    —Jodi Picoult

Win This Book
Win Last House Before the Mountain

Last House Before the Mountain by Monika Helfer

A spellbinding, internationally bestselling family saga set in a fractured rural village in WWI Austria.



Solve this clue:

R Peter T P P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.