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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

by Lois Leveen

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This book left me wanted to know so much more about this fascinating woman much of whose life was unfortunately undocumented. In this novelization of her life, Mary starts life as a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. After being emancipated by the Van Lew's outspoken daughter Bet, Mary is sent to Philadelphia to receive an education few black women would had in the 19th century. At the start of the Civil War, however, Mary journeyed back to Richmond and quickly became involved in a spy network dedicated to carrying information back to the Union army. Mary pretends to be a slave and becomes a part of the household of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, giving her plenty of opportunities to obtain sensitive information. This was a great read and it left me wanting so much more about Mary and her life! ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | May 18, 2018 |
This book is based on a truly remarkable true story about a brave former slave in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War. Ms. Leveen has given us a truly realistic portrait of Mary Bowser and her remarkable efforts for the Union army during that horrific war. Mary was a former slave who was freed by her mistress when she was 18 and was sent by that same mistress to attend school in Philadelphia. Mary was brilliant and she had a photographic memory. She did well with her studies. But even though her mother was freed by that same mistress that freed her, her father was a bonded slave back in Richmond. Mary aligns herself with the abolitionists in Philadelphia, and sets her mind to do whatever is necessary to help as much as she can with emancipation. She even goes back to Richmond and pretends to be a slave so that she can work in the Confederate "White" House (which was actually the Grey House). for President Jefferson Davis. While working in that house during the seemingly endless war, she spies for the Union. She must be on her guard at all times while she does this secret work. Richmond, Virginia was not an easy place for a supposed slave during the war and there is danger around every corner, but Mary persevees, thus getting some truly helpful information to the Union army that helps change the course of the war. The story is remarkable, but Ms. Leveen portrayal of Mary and all the other characters in this book, is what sets this book up into the higher echelons of historical fiction. What a remarkable woman this was! And what a tribute to her bravery this book is. ( )
  Romonko | Nov 16, 2017 |
This book was slow to read. It wasn't hard but it didn't hold my attention. I struggled to finish. I appreciated the story it told of this real person, Mary Bowser, it just wasn't my kind of book. ( )
  ByChallaF | Jan 31, 2017 |
This was an extremely well-written novel. I enjoyed the fact that several of the characters were based on real people. The history lesson was amazing and I was completly engrossed in the time and place. I also expanded my vocabulary a good deal in this book! Leveen utilizes some older words that I honestly had never heard of - renascent, quiescent and tocsin among them. Very enjoyable, informative, entertaining read. ( )
  Maureen_McCombs | Aug 19, 2016 |
The Secrets of Mary Bowser – Lois Leveen – 453pg. -7/8/12

4 stars

Mary Bowser was a free black woman, living in Philadelphia who returned voluntarily to slavery to serve as a spy during the Civil war. There is very little documented history of this American hero, so Lois Leveen’s novel attempts to fill in the gaps.

The first half of the book deals with Mary’s childhood in slavery. She and her mother were house slaves for the Van Lew family of Richmond, Virginia. Leveen paints a picture of a well-to-do white family who are reluctant slave holders. Eventually, Mary and her mother are freed by the daughter of the house, Bet Van Lew. Mary is sent to school in Philadelphia, but Mary’s parents stay in Richmond; her father still a slave in fact, her mother free, but posing as a slave to be near her husband. The years of Mary’s education are slow in action, but serve to present the many personal and ethical dilemma’s that Mary must resolve. Mary experiences many levels of racial discrimination from the white community and within the free black community. She completes her education and becomes involved with the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.

The second half of the book becomes more exciting as Mary returns to Richmond to become a spy in Jefferson Davis’s home. She uses her ability to read and her photographic memory to gather important information for the cause. Leveen attributes the success and failure of several battles to Mary’s work. Mary’s purpose is always to end slavery, even if that means extending the carnage of the war.

This was a very enjoyable book. It is clear that it is well researched and I learned a great deal. Mary Bowser is written as intelligent, heroic, and humanly conflicted by the choices she is forced to make. My only complaint with the book is that there is little attempt at authentic dialect. This is probably just as well. The Scots dialect that Leveen wrote for the abolitionist/spy, Thomas McNiven, was not very successful. The Secrets of Mary Bowser would be an excellent book club choice. Many of the conflicts that Mary faced are with us still today.

( )
  msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
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Epigraph
If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience.... Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises. --Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," 1841
Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman? --Maria Stewart, "Lecture Delivered At The Franklin Hall, Boston," 1832
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Mama was always so busy.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062107909, Paperback)

Based on a remarkable true story, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an inspiring tale of one daring woman's willingness to sacrifice her own freedom to change the course of history

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:07 -0400)

"Based on the true story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who returns to Virginia to spy on the Confederates, The secrets of Mary Bowser is the powerful story of a woman who must sacrifice her freedom to truly achieve it"--Provided by publisher.

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