Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a fascinating, lyrically and wonderfully written, well researched story based on the true life accomplishments of Mary Bowser and her determination to aid in the freedom for slaves and the abolishment of slavery during the Civil War.

Here is the synopsis from Goodreads: 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. 

 Mary has an eidetic memory, and often played I Spy with her mother when she was young. Her mother always told her that Jesus had a special plan for her and her excellent recollection and I Spy games would prove very advantageous to Mary in the future.

Mary’s “owners”, the Van Lew’s had a daughter, Bet, whom was fueled with certain desire to do her part to end slavery and offered freedom and a presitigous education in Philadelphia to Mary. Yet, after a time, living this free life in the North didn’t feel as though it were meeting her mother’s expectations of her. Also, the free life in the North wasn’t exactly as it was made out to be, as Mary witnessed many acts of hatred against the Negroes, both rich and poor:

It was better than slavery…But still it wasn’t what freedom ought to be.

While in Philadelphia, Mary finds herself intricately involved in helping spirit slaves to the North through the Underground Railway. Certain that Civil War was imminent, Mary decides to head South and pose as a slave inside Jefferson Davis’ “Gray House”. Here she acts as an “ignorant darkie”  in order to gather information and help the Union achieve its goal for emancipation.

All of these acts made me greatly admire Mary’s tenacity. Leveen portrays an eloquent Mary and she is a wonderful heroine! There is one point in particular which was wonderful to read and is when Mary is attending an abolition meeting in Philadelphia. She speaks out against a comment made by a person that “any creature who would choose to remain enslaved rather than take his freedom does not deserve the title of man.” This annoyed Mary greatly she felt it was directed at Mary’s parents, whose choice it was to remain enslaved so that Mary could be freed and educated.  Mary shouts out that

 “Plenty of those who don’t come North are truer men, or finer women, than many of the self-proclaimed better sort of colored Philadelphia.”

The Secrets of Mary Bowser was lyrically written and fascinating to read, with beautiful passages like:

 But rumors were like dandelion puffs, they sprung up everywhere those warm spring days, only to prove as delicate as they were plentiful, dissipating in the first hard blow of truth. No one knew when the next blow would come, or what truth it would bring.”

 In the end, Mary is rewarded for her brave actions and is able to meet with Abraham Lincoln. In answer to his question about working for Davis says, “I wasn’t working for Jeff Davis. I worked for freedom, and for you, Mr. Lincoln.”

Overall, I’m saying 3.5 stars for me. It was indeed fascinating and so beautifully written, however my only complaint would be that it was longer than needed be, in my opinion.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

    • Thanks for reading Laura! It is a fascinating story and so beautifully written! Quite amazing people (Mary & Bet) and I enjoyed reading the tidbits of research in the end!

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