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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Summary from the publisher:
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 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 all her courageous gambles to end slavery will pay off, Mary discovers that everything comes at a cost—even freedom.

The moment I heard The Secrets of Mary Bowser was based on a true story, I had to get my hands on it. I knew absolutely nothing about the slaves and abolitionists who gathered intelligence on the Confederacy for Lincoln and was eager to see the Civil War from that point of view. I was also intrigued by Mary herself, a woman about whom very little survives, but who, according to historical documents, was a vital part of the spy network. Luckily, Ms. Leveen provides ample insight into all of these things in this sweeping, meticulously researched novel.

The historical side of The Secrets of Mary Bowser made my inner nerd sing. The book spans a twenty year period where we see the South undergo drastic changes as they struggle to hold on to the institution of slavery and fight and lose a devastating war. At the same time, we get a glimpse of life in the North, where free blacks often encountered the same discrimination they did in the South—sometimes from their own people. Ms. Leveen maintains a strong sense of time and place throughout, and the little details she includes really make the story come alive. The scenes that took place inside the Confederate White House, a.k.a. the Grey House, were especially fascinating in the way they revealed the underpinnings of the government and how the Southern politicians often sidled up to their president’s wife to get their requests heard, but also gave an idea of how the Davises behaved when they weren’t hosting strategy meetings and dinner parties. It really brought home the fact that the abolitionist spy ring succeeded largely because the Davises regarded their slaves as little more than furniture.

The true heart of the novel, though, is the title character. Mary’s voice won me over from the very first page, and it was a pleasure to go on this journey with her as she gained her freedom, left her parents to study in Philadelphia, struggled to fit in with Northern society, and eventually returned to a much more dangerous Virginia to help end slavery. It was really interesting to watch her mature from someone who quickly jumped to conclusions, to someone who saw that, in the abolitionist cause and in spying, nothing is simple. Her final words to President Lincoln warmed my heart and gave me chills.

I so enjoyed disappearing into the world of The Secrets of Mary Bowser, to the point where, even after I’d read the abundant bonus materials, I still didn’t want the book to be done. A wonderful addition to an already rich summer of historical fiction.

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