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.

Review: Blue Asylum

A thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (and Thomas Allen, Ltd) for rewarding us with the ability to read Blue Asylum before it was released.

Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman.

Iris is a woman sent away to the insane aslyum for defying her husband. A man she knows is a cruel plantation owner and whom she despises. The beginning of the story is where Iris has already been tried and sentenced to be detained at the asylum, she is taking the boat to the island where the asylum is housed. Iris is desperate to have everyone understand the mistake that was made and that she is of sound mind, her madness being that she challenged and defied her husband.

There has been a mistake. I do not belong here. I am simply here for the act of defying my husband, who is a man of most indecent character.

I am not a lunatic. I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by own husband.

It is always amazing to read how a man’s opinion carried so much weight at that time and that no matter how calmly you presented yourself, women were never believed. What a convenient way to cast aside an unwanted wife simply by claiming her insane. Any potential nostalgia for this bygone era should be swiftly wiped away! There is also great insight about the laudanum laced patients and the horrible “water treatment” that was used on women to make them docile and acquiescent again.

You’ve embarrassed your husband. Humiliated him, here in such a pressing time, when the war is taking such a toll.

At Sanibel, Iris meets a woman that swallows small objects, and whom becomes one of her closest friends, a man that believes his feet are too heavy and a recovering solider suffering from intense shock, dreaming of the colour blue to help calm him and whose story also unfolds in time. And there is Wendell, the son of the good doctor Cowell, who lives full time on the island. Wendell has no children his age there and is surrounded by madness. He quite fears he himself is insane, for he has no one to confide in about what he sees from the patients, and of the changes in his body or his feelings. Wendell becomes something of a watchkeeper over Iris. He is fascinated by her and wishes to keep her safe. For Iris, Wendell becomes her confidante and her only and best way to escape from the island.

Iris’ past unfolds amid the blossoming friendship between herself and Wendell. The story switches from the present at the asylum, and slowly unfolds with the past story as to how Iris really came to be there. Her afternoon chats with Wendell expose the tryanny of her husband and his treatment of the slaves there. She tells Wendell with care and patience, how she came to help free and escape with the slaves from her husband’s plantation. Through these stories Iris also provides parallells for Wendell to think about, how his father is running his own slave plantation in a way, and the tyranny of the asylum, etc.

She is also “getting into” Dr. Cowell’s head as he fights to justify her insanity but also his growing infatuation with her. Iris falls in love with Ambrose, the recovering soldier and these feelings are impeding her ability to escape.

This was her true suitor, not the plantation owner but the madman, pure of heart and strong and kind. The one who made her feel completely a woman and not an ounce a prisoner or a patient or a lunatic.

This was a really good story. You may find that it starts out perhaps just a tad slow, but it does build all along the way and the slow unveiling of Iris’ story and of the stories of the various characters is worth the wait. The tension and anticipation builds to a solid ending. I’ve waffled between the 3.5 and 4 star rating. So let’s settle with a 3.75. 🙂 It is a worthy read!

Parts of this novel did remind me of Dracula in Love, by Karen Essex, where Mina Harker is sent to an asylum, again because of her husband, and his sole declaration that she is insane. (I do encourage you to pick up Dracula in Love- I absolutely loved it, perhaps the only book with a vampire in it that I will ever read.)

This is Nellie Bly being examined and determined to be mentally insane. Nellie Bly was a journalist who went undercover to expose the travesty in the Blackwell Insane Asylum. The link will take you to the full story as written by Bly.

Review: My Name is Mary Sutter


Two covers, because depending on the country, you were either reading the blue dress cover (Canada) or the profile picture cover (US). Thank you to our fellow hoarder, Elizabeth, we all read the US version.

As all three of us read this book, perhaps we should all insert our “reviews” here! Although Jackie removed a star because she was not as satisfied by the ending as we were. ☺

(From Goodreads) An enthralling historical novel about a young woman’s struggle to become a doctor during the Civil War

In this stunning first novel, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, head­strong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine-and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak- Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens-two surgeons who fall unwittingly in love with Mary’s courage, will, and stubbornness in the face of suffering-and resisting her mother’s pleas to return home to help with the birth of her twin sister’s baby, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.

Mary, and well everyone really, in this book, are so richly characterized it was so hard to come to the end and realize you would no longer be able to spend more time with them. I repeated over and over my wish that this was a 5-part, 2 hour each part mini-series! You were so quickly and easily immersed in to this story, and formed such a strong bond with Mary!

It was very interesting to read about the lives (suffering) of soldiers during the Civil War, especially from the medical standpoint and I really enjoyed how she personalized President Lincoln throughout. Jackie was disappointed in the ending, and although it may have seem “rushed” right at the very end or “just ended quickly”, I was honestly pleased with how things turned out for Mary and the person that she ends with as her love interest. I don’t want to discuss it too much, because it would give too much away, but I was pleased to see that she is with a person that loves, respects and honours her committment to becoming a surgeon.

It also got me to thinking that should that have been how the book ended? Wasn’t Mary’s main goal to become a surgeon? Why concern herself with a love interest? But no, as I said above, she is with the right man and is very deserving of a strong love! Don’t you think?

Never once did I feel this book dragged, or went on too long, or bored me at some points. No way, I still seriously want a Mary Sutter mini-series! (Penny)