The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Mary Bowser was a real person, born a slave in Richmond, freed and then educated in the North, who returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War. Few details are known about Mary's life. Lois Leveen has created a work of historical fiction based on Mary's life and on other historical figures and situations. Included in the book are photographs of locations described and a picture, thought to be of Mary.

A unique aspect of this book is the details of what life is like for free and educated black people during the time of the Civil War. Contrasts and parallels are made with the life of those free in the North and in the South, with the life of black servants, and with the life of black slaves. The details of Mary's life - where she lives, her food, her clothes, what she reads, her romances - all serve to  immerse us in a time and place similar to what we have read in other Civil War novels, but with many specifics which may be new to us. 

In the novel, Mary, a child, is freed by Miss Bet, the daughter of her owners, and taken to Philadelphia for school and to begin a new life. When Mary is 20, she defies the law which forbids freed slaves from returning to Virginia, to go back to Richmond to care for her father. While in Richmond, working with Miss Bet and others, she acts as a servant in the household of Jefferson Davis in order to spy for the Union.

Leveen's writing drew me into the story - the history, the mysteries of escaping slaves and of spying, the romances of Mary and her parents, and the ideas and ideals of family, courage, and freedom.

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