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The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel by Lois…
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The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Lois Leveen

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1823565,058 (4.04)12
wisemetis's review
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I was very impressed with how deftly Leveen told the story of Mary Bowser and Bet Van Lew, given just how little is known about them, particularly Mary. I love history, and I especially love the history of people, things, and events that tend to be marginalized in traditional school classrooms. I had never knew of either of these two women's existence, and I wish they were at least mentioned in my school textbooks because they are amazing.

Leveen focuses on Mary Bowser, who was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, and is freed by Bet Van Lew following Bet's father's death. Bet sends Mary to be educated in Philadelphia. On the advent of the Civil War, Mary returns to Richmond and takes up spying for the Union, and even secures a position as a house slave in the home of Jefferson Davis.

Leveen does take some artistic license with history, giving Mary a much larger role in the plotting and planning than most historians are wont tot do. I found the entire book fascinating, and Mary's slow initiation into the abolitionist world, starting at sewing circles to eventually something more dangerous and drastic.

Hopefully this book will inspire more people to learn about the incredible role Mary and Bet played in the Civil War. ( )
  wisemetis | Apr 25, 2012 |
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Interesting Civil War realistic fiction. ( )
  amazzuca26 | Jan 9, 2014 |
The Secrets of Mary Bowser imagines the life of a former slave, freed and educated in the North, who returns to Richmond right before the Civil War as a spy for the Union. I ran across the book as a Kindle Daily Deal, and I had to admit that the premise intrigued me especially since it was based on the life of a real woman.

The first and second parts of the book chronicle Mary's life as a slave and as a freewoman gaining an education in Philadelphia. I found both a bit slow, but was fascinated by the description of the life of free blacks in the north and their interaction with white society.

The story really picked up when Mary moves back to Richmond to spy for the north. Leveen's account includes richly drawn characters living through a treacherous time for all. I found Leveen's arguments among the characters most enlightening as each struggled to define what it meant to be pro-Union and anti-slavery in a place where being both could be fatal.

Good book. Recommended. ( )
  spounds | Jun 24, 2013 |
I don’t usually read historical fiction, but was intrigued by this having been based on a true story. It is an excellent historical novel, filled with drama and intrigue. Mary Bowser was a freed slave who spied for the Union during the Civil War. She had been educated in the North, but worked as a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis where she was able to gain access to important documents. None of the white people she worked for could imagine that a slave would be able to read, so she could memorize the documents, convert them to a code and pass them on to the Union leaders.
Because no records were maintained on activities of spies, I’m not sure that she had as great an effect on the war and its outcome as the author wants me to believe. However, it is a well-written book that held my interest and gave me a greater appreciation for the activities of African-Americans during the Civil War. ( )
  terran | Jun 15, 2013 |
Freed by her Virginia mistress while a teen, Mary is taken to Philadelphia to be educated. She later returns to Richmond, posing as a slave, in order to gather vital military secrets which are forwarded to the Union Army. In choosing Richmond as the novel's setting, Lois Leveen provides a refreshing change of perspective from the many Civil War novels set on Deep South plantations.The deliberate pacing of the story allows readers to be drawn into the danger faced by Mary as her espionage become increasingly urgent. ( )
  PeggyDean | May 27, 2013 |
Earlier last year I read [b:Miss Lizzie's War: The Double Life of Southern Belle Spy Elizabeth Van Lew|13092454|Miss Lizzie's War The Double Life of Southern Belle Spy Elizabeth Van Lew|Rosemary Agonito|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344670869s/13092454.jpg|18264296]. Elizabeth was a southern Unionist who spied for the Union. In this story, she arranged for her former slave, Mary Bowser, to serve in the Jefferson Davis household and gather information for the Union. I very much enjoyed that book, so when I saw this one telling the same story, but from Mary's point of view, I knew I wanted to read it. I enjoyed this book just as much! There were differences; the main one being that in the first book, Elizabeth, was the 'mastermind' of the espionage and in this one, Mary was the instigator. As the author explained, there isn't a lot of recorded history regarding former slaves, so the author got creative in telling this story. At times I had to remind myself that this is fiction, particularly at one point when Mary withheld information to manipulate the war. There is a lot of history in the book. There is also some insight into the lives of freed slaves and the difficulties they had even after gaining their freedom. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil War era. ( )
  Time2Read2 | Mar 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a child, Mary lives with her mother as slaves to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. When Bet, the daughter of her mistress, buys all the slaves and frees them, Mary's parents have to make difficult decisions about their future. Her father is still a slave for another master working as a blacksmith, and her mother doesn't want to leave him. Mary has an opportunity to go to school in Philadelphia, but that may mean leaving her parents behind forever.

I received this as an Early Reviewer book far too long ago, and I'm really unsure why I put it off so long. This book reads almost like a memoir of Mary, from the time she was a child through the end of the Civil War. It's really well done historical fiction, including a lot of period details without too many extraneous research details thrown in. Mary and Bet Van Lew were real people, and I was really interested in a lot of the extras included at the end, with photographs from Richmond and references to some of the books Leveen used in her research (I could have used a bibliography instead of footnotes to the historical note, but I'll take what I got to read further). Mary is a great character, and I enjoyed the way in which the varying beliefs about what was necessary to end slavery or to win the war was explored through the characters' motivations. ( )
  bell7 | Mar 5, 2013 |
A fantastic tale of a young slave girl in Civil War era Richmond, who is freed by her mistress. She is sent north for an education.

Mary then becomes a part of the infamous underground railroad, helping to liberate those less fortunate than herself. But when the Civil War breaks out things are going to change for this heroine.

Based on the life of a real person, and upon real events, The Secrets of Mary Bowser brings home the tragedy that slavery was. And brings to light both black and white individuals who assisted in bringing about freedom for those whom it had been denied for far too long.



****DISCLOSURE: This book was provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for an independent and non-biased review. ( )
  texicanwife | Dec 17, 2012 |
A slave to one of the wealthiest families in Richmond, Virginia, young Mary's childhood is spent working in the house of her owners. She's a clever girl, with a perfect memory; Mary needs only to hear a conversation once and she can repeat it later, word for word. It makes her owners nervous, but their oddball, outspoken daughter Bet Van Lew decides that such intelligence should be cultivated. She frees Mary and her mother so that Mary can go to North to pursue an education. Bet's generosity costs Mary dearly; her father remains the slave pf a blacksmith, and her mother will not leave him, so the family is split apart as the daughter heads to Philadelphia. Although terribly lonely, Mary soon establishes herself in the North, where she witnesses both the joys of freedom and the hateful racism whites feel towards free blacks. As she grows up, she uncovers a local branch of the Underground Railroad, and as the nation edges closer to war Mary becomes more and more involved with helping slaves escape. Mary's talents are noticed, and her unique background gives her an opportunity to take on a dangerous but important assignment: return to Richmond as a spy posing as a slave in order to infiltrate the house of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.

Mary was a real Civil War spy, which made the story all the more fascinating. Very little is known of her life beyond the usual administrative records: birth, marriage date, etc. She is mentioned a few times in the diary of Bet Van Lew, a truly colorful woman who gathered intelligence for the North throughout the Civil War. This book really celebrates the difference that two strong, passionate women can make, even when trapped within the limitations imposed by their sex and class

One of the most interesting observations Mary makes is the realization that the paternalism of the South has, in a way, protected blacks like herself from the more blatant racism of whites who feel threatened by freed blacks. When slaves are property, they must be taken care of, just as one cares for a beloved horse or an expensive piece of machinery. If a drunken white man kills a slave, he is answerable to the slave's owner – a powerful deterrent. Freed slaves, on the other hand, lose that protection. If a resentful white believes he lost his job because some negro will work it for cheaper, and he seeks revenge...well, there's no one will protecting the blacks. Even as she fights for the freedom of her people, Mary worries that the anger in the South over losing the war will cost them far more than slavery did. Yet in spite of her fears, she remains dedicated to the cause.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser made me think about slavery in a new way – yes, it was/is a terrible institution, but not every slaveowner was a horrible person, and in some cases it provided something of a safety net since a slave was assured of some sort of shelter and food every night. Once the blacks were freed and that guarantee was taken away, well...it wasn't pretty. I'm not saying slavery was justified, not at all! I just never really considered it from this angle before.

I loved this book. The story moves quickly with rich descriptions to bring mid-19th century America to life. Through the eyes of Mary, we visit the sparkling mansions of Richmond and the devastating poverty of free blacks, who struggle daily since they lack the education for anything but the most menial of jobs. The book may be 450 pages long, with an additional 20 pages of supplemental material, but it just flies by. The Secrets of Mary Bowser, without a doubt, is one of the best books I've read this year. ( )
  makaiju | Oct 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
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!
1 vote jmchshannon | Oct 17, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Received this as an early reviewer and sad to say I struggled through it. It is a fascinating story but found either it was excruciatingly slow paced or moving through historical events so quickly as to get lost. It just would not hold my attention. ( )
  lilyswitch | Sep 27, 2012 |
Listen to a blogtalk radio interview with author Lois Leveen and Jen from Bookclub Girl discussing The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/book-club-girl/2012/07/12/lois-leveen-discusses-the...

I read a lot of novels set in the time period of the civil war this summer. One was a true account of what it was like to be a slave, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one was a good fictional account of what it was like to be a Union soldier, Red Badge of Courage, and one was a crazy account of what it would have been like if the Civil War was really a front for vampires, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. While they were all set during the civil war each one provided a different perspective of the events. In this novel we see the events unfold through the eyes of Mary Bowser, a person who really lived as a slave and who achieved freedom, only to be enslaved in the South once again.

Although Mary Bowser was a real person this novel is a fictional rendering of her life because there is very little evidence showing what conclusively happened. There is not even a record of her until thirty five years after the Civil War ended. What is not in dispute is that Mary Bowser was born a slave and she was owned by the Van Lew family. In the novel Bet Van Lew takes a special interest in Mary and send her to the North to be educated. While attending school Mary experiences a completely different life than the one she has known. She meets people who look like her but are actually wealthier than the whites. She starts dating a young man from a prominent family and begins living a Cinderella like existence. When it comes time to marry him she realizes that she cannot turn her back on all of the slaves still living in hell in the South. She begins to help slaves who are escaping via the underground railway. Through this action she meets the man who is to become her husband. She then embarks on the most dangerous mission of all. With Bet VanLew's help she becomes a slave in the household of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. There she poses as an illiterate parlor slave while reading everything she can get her hands on and transmitting the knowledge to Thomas McNiven who passed vital strategies to the the North. In this way she acted as a Union spy. Of course her work was incredibly dangerous and if that weren't enough her husband enlists in the Union army. They were a couple dedicated to the cause of ending slavery.

The author did a good job with the voice of Mary. My small quibble is with the treatment of Bet Van Lew. Mary and her husband are constantly making unflattering comments about her. When Mary is with her she is often rude to her. After reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass you realize how rare of a person Bet Van Lew really was. When you read about her life you can't help but be filled with admiration for the woman. She took a very unpopular side because she knew it was the right thing to do and she paid dearly for it. I would have liked to see her get a better portrayal that was more worthy of her invaluable contributions to the North. That aside, Leveen did a good job bringing to life a forgotten hero of the times about whom little was known. In away this book is more engaging for today's young readers than the ones written at that time. This book makes the time period more accessible to my twelve daughter who was instead assigned the Frederick Douglass book which she found difficult to get into. Any book that can make history come alive and teach you something you didn't know is worth a read. ( )
  arielfl | Aug 13, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I started and stopped it a couple of times because it was slow moving in the beginning. Then the book caught my attention and I finished it quickly, looking forward to finding out how the characters fared in their espionage. The author was able to take what little is known about Mary Bowser and give her substance and possibility to fill in the blanks. It was a good read, especially for those who enjoy Civil War based historical fiction.
  1crazycatlady | Aug 3, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was a fascinating, well researched novel. At first it was difficult to imagine a person in Mary Bowser's position to be able or even willing to do what she did during the Civil War, to want to be able to take that kind of risk. But this book is based on the true story of Mary's life. The plot was well developed and well written. I would highly recommend this book.
  kimlord | Jun 26, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser is, indeed, a very good example of historical fiction, combining thorough research with deft, period prose and strong characterization. I'm always theoretically interestedin the "better sort" of historical fiction, though I rarely end up actually reading the book club type fiction currently popular, so I was reticent about this one and assumed it would be something of a slog. Happily, I was mistaken.

As has been stated in previous reviews, author Lois Leveen shaped the novel around a few brief mentions of Mary Van Lew Bowser, an educated former slave who returned to the South to spy for the Union by serving as a slave in Jefferson Davis's household. Other than a few bare facts, Leveen invented a life and a personality for this nearly forgotten woman, theorizing how her story could have overlapped and interacted with historical and fictional people in Richmond and Philadelphia. This is a common enough method of writing historical fiction, and it has its strengths and weaknesses in general, but mostly the strengths are evident here: Leveen provides her readers with a vivid narrator. Amd by literally giving Mary Bowser a voice, enables us to reimagine the "real" people from her perspective. Overall, the result is a success, and those who enjoy historical fiction will likely appreciate it.
  InfoQuest | Jun 25, 2012 |
I have read many novels about slavery and the Civil War but what sets this novel apart from others is that it encompasses so much and so it so well. That Mary was an actual person and that the letters and newspaper articles were factual just adds to the wonderful telling of the story that unfolds. This novel shows both sides of the slavery issue, what both white and black abolitionists went through as well as how blacks were treated in the Northern states that had already outlawed slavery. Loved the characters of Mary, her mom and Dad and Bets, a white woman who risked much in Virginia, for the abolishment of an institution she found unjust. Loved reading this story and would loved to have met many of these people. ( )
  Beamis12 | Jun 4, 2012 |
Destined to be on many "best of the year" lists, Lois Leveen has truly brought history to life in The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Starting from the briefest of mentions of this remarkable woman in historical records, Leveen deftly fleshes out the story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who was educated in Philadelphia and who returned to Virginia to become a spy for the Union during the Civil War. Exploring such weighty topics as slavery, abolitionism, religion and war, this is also a story about family, friendship and the spaces in between.

I strongly urge you not to put off reading this one. It does not read like a first novel at all thanks to Leveen's smooth prose and tight story. The story is, in fact, so believable that the reader must constantly remind herself that much of it is only supposition. But if Mary Bowser was even half the woman that she is made out to be, then she deserves to have her story told.

http://webereading.com/2012/05/new-release-secrets-of-mary-bowser.html ( )
  klpm | Jun 3, 2012 |
At 450 pages, this is a satisfying brick of a novel. Rich with ambiance, filled with artfully articulated characters, and centered squarely in an era and locale that is vibrant, shocking, captivating, and real, The Secrets of Mary Bowser represents what I love about a good historical novel.

Based in fact, this is the story of a woman's transition from slave to free woman, an already momentous experience that would fill a book alone; Mary Bowser, however, answers a calling greater than herself and works with the Underground Railroad before returning to the south as a slave to spy for the Union.  Placed in Jefferson Davis' household, Mary uses her intelligence and courage to send information to the Unionists, and she's a witness to some of the most traumatic events in U.S. history.

Leveen hits all the elements right in this one: she doesn't stint on details when it comes to people, places, food, and clothing, but the text doesn't read like an academic tome. Very little is known about Mary and her life, so Leveen has creative license to imagine how a freed slave ended up spying for the Union. What she presents felt authentic to me, exciting without being over-the-top, and very satisfying -- the kind of fiction that had my jaw on the floor (did that really happen?) and me gulping down pages eagerly. I particularly loved the end of this book; it has a neat, happy conclusion that fits the story, and is a sort of sly wink to the fact that Mary Bowser's story is so little known.

There are 22 pages of extras as well: annotated historical notes, a brief discussion guide with questions, a Q&A with the author that has photos of the people and places mentioned (perhaps my favorite part), as well as sample recipes from an 1830s cookbook. Definitely a great book club pick, this is also a lovely summertime chunkster. ( )
  unabridgedchick | May 30, 2012 |
THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER, Lois Leveen, William Morrow, 2012, pb, 496pp, 978-0-06-2107909.

Lois Leveen will admit that when she studied The Civil War in school she found it to be rather dull. For the author, it wasn’t until she began to examine the social and cultural climate during the war, rather than specific battles that defined the war that changed her opinion. Fortunately for the reader, Leveen begins a search to answer a few curious questions. The result is a blend of known history and her imagined historical fiction surrounding the lives of three people who spied for the Union they were Mary Bowser, Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew and Thomas McNiven.

This story takes place in Richmond Virginia where Mary is a house slave for the affluent Van Lew family. The Van Lew’s have a daughter Elizabeth who has strong abolitionist views. It is “Bet” who notices that Mary is quite bright. Although she can not read, she has a unique memory and demonstrates a quick mind. When Elizabeth manumits Mary, she arranges to send her to live in Philadelphia to attend school. Years later, Mary returns to Richmond to join with “Bet” to spy for the North. Mary, assumes the identity of a slave and works for Jefferson Davis and his wife. With clever irony Mary assumes the part of an illiterate and simple minded slave who actually has a photographic mind, is highly educated and has a natural mature poise. “Bet” Van Lew is believed to be pro-South, but is a true abolitionist. With her Southern charm and hospitality she apparently eludes suspicion.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an irresistable story of espionage and bravery. Leveen has opened up the souls and minds of people who lived during this devisive war. Whether slave, abolitionist, soldier, slaveholder, woman, freed African American, northerner or southerner, the Civil War impacted peoples’ lives beyond each gruesome and gory battle in disparate ways. To this day, there is an unquenchable allure for books, articles, photos and anything about the Civil War. What makes this period of American History so compelling? Perhaps it is a desire to seek understanding as we unravel the evil mark that slavery left on our history. The Secrets of Mary Bowser will satisfy those seeking historical fact and lovers of historical fiction who search for any perspective that will move us a step closer to understanding the disunion to e pluribus unum.

Wisteria Leigh


© [Wisteria Leigh] and [Bookworm's Dinner], [2008-2012]. ( )
  WisteriaLeigh | May 21, 2012 |
Article first published as Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen on Blogcritics.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a historical novel set in our nation’s darkest hour that packs a punch featuring a slave-turned spy heroine.

Mary Bowser spends her youth as a house slave in urban Richmond alongside her mother. Richmond was “the north of the south,” meaning escape from slavery was possible. It was also dangerous because of the Fugitive Slave Act; mandating free states return runaway slaves to the south.

Outspoken abolitionist, Bet Van Lew, no-nonsense daughter of the deceased slaveholder, encourages Mary to go north to get an education. Mary’s forward-thinking mother agrees, noting that Mary has a special calling in life. Mary Bowser takes a train to the free state of Philadelphia a decade before the Civil War begins. After experiencing an unsettling form of prejudice in Philadelphia, she returns home to be part of a Union spy ring in Richmond. A master of stealth, Mary must choose between what is right, rather than what is easy.

A precocious child, Mary valued any opportunity to expand her knowledge. Visitors to the Richmond house brought a valuable commodity—information. Even so, at age eleven she says, “A slave best keep her talents hidden, feigned ignorance being the greatest intelligence in the topsy-turvy house of bondage.”

Author Lois Leveen holds a Ph.D. in English from UCLA with a specialty in African American Literature. She came across Mary Bowser’s espionage while reading a woman’s history book. She gifts us a story about a real woman about whom little is known. The Secrets of Mary Bowser answers these questions:

• Why would anyone leave the North and sacrifice her own freedom?
• Does Mary choose freedom or her family?
• How did it feel to be educated, but spend her days with people who considered her ignorant?

The book focuses on urban (as opposed to field) slavery and free black life in Philadelphia. This high intensity historical fiction novel brings to light an important, but yet untold story of slavery. Mary’s courage, resilience, and determination to make a difference are masterfully portrayed. Narrated by Mary, the dialogue rings true to slave culture of the nineteenth century and is thoroughly researched. Full of newspaper clippings, correspondence, real historical figures, imagined characters, and secret codes, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is historical fiction of the highest caliber.

Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont ( )
  hollysing | May 21, 2012 |
Mary Bowser was a real woman who lived in the mid 19th century in Richmond, VA. Her owners, the Van Lew family, gave her her freedom and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. Later she returned to Richmond, married a free black man, and spied for the North during the Civil War while her husband spirited slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad. Mary eventually got a job as a maid in the house of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, a perfect position from which to send valuable information to the north. Davis knew someone was getting information out from the Gray House but Mary, as a slave, was invisible to him; he never suspected her.

This is a short synopsis of the plot which doesn't do justice to the personality and determination of the main characters or the undercurrent of fear that runs throughout. In this fictional account of Mary Bowser's life, we follow her to Philadelphia and back and to the end of the war.

Mary's former owner, Bet Van Lew, is one of the most intriguing characters. She's a dyed in the wool abolitionist and yet she really doesn't have a clue what it means to be a slave. Her color blindness is naive and touching, but she also manages to ignore danger to accomplish some valuable work getting news out, saving slaves, and bringing much needed food in from her outlying farm. Even more impressive is that this spinster from a privileged family never complains of or even reveals the heavy sacrifices she must make during the war.

Mary is of course the character around whom everything revolves. She has a prodigious talent for memorizing. She is strong and inventive but not superwoman. Occasionally her fears overcome her courage but she pulls herself together and does what she has to do. Her story will pull you in and won't let you go.

This is definitely going to be on my Best Books of 2012 List. ( )
  bjmitch | May 13, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I was very impressed with how deftly Leveen told the story of Mary Bowser and Bet Van Lew, given just how little is known about them, particularly Mary. I love history, and I especially love the history of people, things, and events that tend to be marginalized in traditional school classrooms. I had never knew of either of these two women's existence, and I wish they were at least mentioned in my school textbooks because they are amazing.

Leveen focuses on Mary Bowser, who was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, and is freed by Bet Van Lew following Bet's father's death. Bet sends Mary to be educated in Philadelphia. On the advent of the Civil War, Mary returns to Richmond and takes up spying for the Union, and even secures a position as a house slave in the home of Jefferson Davis.

Leveen does take some artistic license with history, giving Mary a much larger role in the plotting and planning than most historians are wont tot do. I found the entire book fascinating, and Mary's slow initiation into the abolitionist world, starting at sewing circles to eventually something more dangerous and drastic.

Hopefully this book will inspire more people to learn about the incredible role Mary and Bet played in the Civil War. ( )
  wisemetis | Apr 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program. I LOVED this book. I found the story about a young black girl freed from slavery and educated in the North just prior to the American civil war to be extremely compelling. The book is told from the perspective of Mary, a girl born into slavery in Richmond but freed by her owner and sent to Philadelphia for an education. There, she gets involved in the underground railroad and eventually returns to Richmond just before Virginia secedes from the Union. She works throughout the war as a spy for the Union, pretending to be a house slave for Jefferson Davis's wife.

I was so drawn into this book that I found it difficult to put down, and I really didn't want the story to end. I found the characters to be well-developed, the story to be well-thought out and overall just a pleasure to read. ( )
  bwightman | Apr 22, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Lois Leveen tells the enticing story of slavery and espionage in The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Mary Bowser was always a bright girl, her mother always assured her that God had big plans for her even though she was born into slavery. Living with their masters the Van Lews in Richmond Virginia, Mary's life was that of a typical Virginian slave, she was the property of Miss Bet Van Lew until it was decided otherwise. Mary was a very bright girl with an exceptional memory and a ton of courage, Miss Bet notices Mary's brightness and aids her in becoming educated and cultivating her intelligence by making her free slave and sending her to Philadelphia. Through a series of events Mary finds herself back in Virginia pretending to be slave and in the home of the confederate President Davis. Constantly risking her life Mary ensures that certain information that may aid the Union falls into the hands of the right people while continuing to help the slaves escape the South. It is an extremely captivating book with various insights into life in the North and South and the treatment of slaves. It also tells a dramatic story of survival and strength ( )
  crustycruz | Apr 22, 2012 |
I think this book is one of the best historical fictions for 2012. Mary Bowser was real person, a freed slave who put her mark on history. With very few details about Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen brings to life a story of a woman with courage, intelligence and determination. I was sad to finish this page turner.

Born a slave in Richmond Virginia, she lived with her mother, in the attic of the Van Lew mansion. Her mother taught her riddles and later how to read by drawing the letters in the ashes of the fireplace. She taught Mary how to survive while living the double life of a slave.

Her father lived in his small cabin on a nearby property of a different slave owner. Even though her family could only be together once a week, Mary realized that she was very privileged to have both parents. So many slaves had been forcefully cut off from their families and forced to live among complete strangers. Even babies were sold away from their mothers to fatten the owner’s purse.

Bet, the spinster daughter in the Van Lew family had been educated up North and learned ideas about slavery that went against her father’s. But she was still very strict about getting everything just so. Mary couldn’t trust her because she did not really know what it was like to be a slave. But Bet changes in this book as time requires her to start making sacrifices and feeling the effects of starvation and poverty.

One afternoon, Bet was reading a newspaper article to her mother as she usually did. Mary latched on to one of the stories and was able to recite word for word, even though she could not read. Mary’s mother was quiet then but later revealed to Mary that it was as a sign. Her mother knew that someday, Mary’s gift of a strong memory would be important. But just like any slave, she would have to pretend to be ignorant and hide her gift.
Mary was forced to prove that she hadn’t read the article or she would have been severely punished.

Bet Van Lew later paid from her inheritance for Mary and her mother and sent Mary to Philadelphia for an education.

When the time came, Mary would use her gift of an excellent memory and her wonderful education to help slaves to become free.

I highly recommend this book to all interested in the history. ( )
  Carolee888 | Apr 12, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser tells a based on a true story narrative of a young woman born into slavery in Virginia and due to her amazing talent for total recall,is given an opportunity to gain an education and use her skills in ways she couldn't have imagined. Mary is sent to Philadelphia as a child by her mistress Bet Van Lew and despite missing her parents terribly(they give up their chance at freedom in order to stay together yet want the best for their daughter)she flourishes intellectually and emotionally.

However,even in the North,Mary still finds racial oppression which motivates her to aid the Union forces by going back to the South as a spy in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Lois Leveen gives us a remarkable novel of courage that should open more than a few eyes about the unsung heroes of the Civil War. ( )
  Lorelai2 | Apr 11, 2012 |
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