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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen - Prologue

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen - Prologue

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4.24

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Published by WilliamMorrowBooks
Mary is a loving daughter, a quick-witted girl, and a slave to one of the wealthiest families in Richmond, Virginia. When Bet Van Lew, the outspoken daughter of the family that owns Mary, decides to send her to Philadelphia to be educated, Mary must leave her parents to seize her freedom.

Life in the North offers Mary a different kind of education than she ever expected. Carefully keeping the secrets of her own enslaved family, she joins the abolition movement to bring fugitive slaves to freedom. As the nation edges toward war, Mary defies Virginia law by returning to Richmond, vowing to care for her ailing father—and to fight for emancipation. Knowing that slaves are considered incapable of intelligence, she poses as a slave in the Confederate White House to spy on President Jefferson Davis. Together Mary and Bet risk their own lives to smuggle invaluable information to the Union commanders.

As illness and hunger ravage the city, Mary's espionage leads her to deceive even those who are closest to her. Just when it seems all her dangerous gambles to end slavery will pay off, the death and destruction of the war take their greatest toll, and Mary discovers that everything comes at a cost—even freedom.

Based on a true story , written with immense heart, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an illuminating and inspiring tale of injustice and courage, friendship and war—and of one daring woman willing to sacrifice her own freedom to change the course of history.

Mary is a loving daughter, a quick-witted girl, and a slave to one of the wealthiest families in Richmond, Virginia. When Bet Van Lew, the outspoken daughter of the family that owns Mary, decides to send her to Philadelphia to be educated, Mary must leave her parents to seize her freedom.

Life in the North offers Mary a different kind of education than she ever expected. Carefully keeping the secrets of her own enslaved family, she joins the abolition movement to bring fugitive slaves to freedom. As the nation edges toward war, Mary defies Virginia law by returning to Richmond, vowing to care for her ailing father—and to fight for emancipation. Knowing that slaves are considered incapable of intelligence, she poses as a slave in the Confederate White House to spy on President Jefferson Davis. Together Mary and Bet risk their own lives to smuggle invaluable information to the Union commanders.

As illness and hunger ravage the city, Mary's espionage leads her to deceive even those who are closest to her. Just when it seems all her dangerous gambles to end slavery will pay off, the death and destruction of the war take their greatest toll, and Mary discovers that everything comes at a cost—even freedom.

Based on a true story , written with immense heart, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an illuminating and inspiring tale of injustice and courage, friendship and war—and of one daring woman willing to sacrifice her own freedom to change the course of history.

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Publish date: May 15, 2012
Added to Scribd: Mar 26, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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08/21/2013

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bell7_1 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
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.
texicanwife_1 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
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.
jmchshannon reviewed this
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!
lilyswitch reviewed this
Rated 3/5
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.
1crazycatlady reviewed this
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.
kimlord_1 reviewed this
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.
infoquest_1 reviewed this
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.
beamis12 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
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.
hollysing reviewed this
Rated 5/5
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
bjmitch_1 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
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.

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