Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Rating: 4/5
Number of pages: 496
First published: 2012
Genre: historical fiction
I got this book: for review from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

I somehow enjoy books about slavery. Oops, that sounds terrible! But most such books are about strong people who stand up for themselves and for a better life. What’s not to love about that? Some examples: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglas, The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser: What it is about

From the publisher’s website: “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.”

The Secrets of Mary Bowser: What I thought

The fact that this is the story about a woman who really existed is great! It’s written as fiction. As not much is known about Mary Bowser, a lot of this story is made-up but the most important story lines are authentic.

I loved reading about Mary, who from a very young age helped her mother in the houshold of the Van Lew’s, a rich family in Richmond, Virginia. Bet Van Lew, the spinster daughter of the family is an abolitionist, and buys Mary and her mother to set them free. She pays for Mary’s education, for which Mary has to leave her parents and go to Philadelphia.

Later, Mary comes back to Richmond but has to act as a slave (as she can’t come back as a free woman to the place where she’s been a slave before). Initially, she’s there to be with her father, but soon she gets involved in espionage for the Unionists.

The book is well-written and a good read. I found the last part of the book less interesting. This is when Mary is a spy in the household of president Jefferson Davis. My knowledge of American history just isn’t good enough to know upfront who is on what side, so general Lee, general Grant, were they the Goodies or the Baddies? I did find it hard to remember sometimes. It was exciting that Mary was able to convey information to the Unionists while working at the Davis house and I was hoping she wouldn’t get caught.

What I loved about the book is how it shows that things (like slavery) are never clear cut. For instance, Mary realises that a lot of free blacks in Philadelphia live a more difficult life than some of the slaves she knows in Richmond. She also finds out that the white women she gets to know, who are very much against slavery, still want her to sit on the “black” bench in church.

A good read, and a recommendation if you enjoy historical fiction.

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

12 Responses to Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

  1. Hey 🙂 great post! The book sounds brilliant. I’m definitely going to check it out as soon as I can.

  2. Tesney Ap says:

    I have never read a book about slavery before but this got me curious 🙂

  3. I am reviewing this next week and skimming through your review I was excited to see it is about real people… that always adds a little for me… then I want to know more about them 🙂

    • Leeswammes says:

      Sheila, yes, I liked the fact that it’s about real people too. In fact, some of what Mary does, readers would probably complain how unlikely it was if it were total fiction!

  4. bibliosue says:

    I don’t think enjoying books about slavery is terrible at all — it just means that you are interested in reading about that part of history, not the slavery itself. I enjoy reading books about the Holocaust, if only to attempt to understand what horrors people had to endure.
    I like the premise of this book and look forward to reading it one day (hopefully soon!).
    Have you read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom? I think you might enjoy that one.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Suzanne, I see what you mean, but I really don’t like books about the Holocaust – maybe it’s (literally) too close to home.

      Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll check that one out.

  5. Lindsay says:

    I was lucky enough to read and review this a few months ago and I thought it was a very good book. Glad to see you liked it too.

  6. I like that the author portrayed both angles and not just a “clear-cut” view of slavery. Characterizing the North as open and accepting would have been taking the easy way out. I may just have to pick this one up myself. Great review!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Jenna, indeed, it turned out the North wasn’t all that accepting to black people at all. They might not have liked slavery, but that didn’t mean they thought every one was equal.

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