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.
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...
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).
Full Review (850 words).
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.
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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