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
Article first published as Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen on Blogcritics.