”All her life, Mary has been a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond, Virginia. But when Bet, the willful Van Lew daughter, decides to send Mary to Philadelphia to be educated, she must leave her family to seize her freedom.
Life in the North brings new friendships, a courtship, and a far different education than Mary ever expected, one that leads her into the heart of the abolition movement. With the nation edging toward war, she defies Virginia law by returning to Richmond to care for her ailing father—and to fight for emancipation. Posing as a slave in the Confederate White House in order to spy on President Jefferson Davis, Mary deceives even those who are closest to her to aid the Union command.
Just when it seems that all her courageous gambles to end slavery will pay off, Mary discovers that everything comes at a cost—even freedom. “
Thoughts: Lois Leveen’s notes at the end of the novel about the facts behind The Secrets of Mary Bowser are fascinating. Knowing where the line between fact and fiction lies in no way detracts from the story as oftentimes, the truth is more unbelievable than fiction. Mary was indeed as remarkable as the book leads one to understand. Raised with her mother and able to spend time with her father every week, baptized in a church for whites, manumitted at an early age, educated in the North at the expense of her former owner, maintaining a friendship of sorts with said former owner, becoming a teacher, being married in a church for whites – even one of these events would have made Mary’s life experiences atypical for a slave or freed person. The fact that she experienced all of these events made her life extraordinary. Yet, Mary felt the need to forego those freedoms to move back to the dangers of Virginia’s slaveholder culture. It truly is unbelievable and yet true.
While there are plenty of people who took unbelievable risks to achieve the same goals, Mary’s is the one that strikes at the heart of the reader because of Ms. Leveen’s ability to reach through the dry pages of history and bring this remarkable woman back to life for modern audiences. As far-fetched as her actions may seem at first, Mary is so alive and so sympathetic that her actions no longer appear implausible to readers. In addition, while most people understand on a functional level the horrors of slavery, Ms. Leveen adds details that dispel any preconceived notions a reader might have held about life for persons of color no matter where they lived in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, creating a complete picture of just how tumultuous and hypocritical the times were.
Ms. Leveen’s research and expertise pays off on this exciting and impressive work of historical fiction. While much may be fictional, The Secrets of Mary Bowser has a feel of authenticity due in part to Ms. Leveen’s unwillingness to shy away from the more grotesque aspects of war and slavery and in large part to her thorough knowledge of the era. Since much of Mary Bowser’s true actions can never be known, Ms. Leveen never strays from the improbable as she attempts to bridge the gaps between historical fact and historical speculation. What results is a taut thriller that combines the familiar with the unfamiliar to showcase another viewpoint of slavery, of the fight for emancipation and freedom for millions of slaves, and of the War Between the States. Truly, The Secrets of Mary Bowser are worth getting to know.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to LibraryThing’s Early Reader Program for my review copy!