The Secrets of Mary Bowser

I haven’t been reading much of late; it’s because I’m knee deep in a new series of murders here in Dickens Junction.

But here’s something fresh and new—a Civil War story you’ve never heard before—and some of it is true.

First-time author Lois Leveen shows in her new novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a freed black woman who, after going north to be educated, returns to the south to serve as a spy in the Confederate White House.

Mary Bowser has lived in Richmond, the property of the Van Lew family, until the aging ingénue of the family, Bet Van Lew, secures Mary’s freedom and sends her to Philadelphia to be educated. But in spite of these privileges, Mary has an agenda—freedom for her father, still enslaved in Virginia (by another owner) and, ultimately, freedom for her people. So she puts her freedom at risk, first by becoming involved in the Underground Railroad and then, even more audaciously, returns south to masquerade as a servant in the home of Jefferson Davis.

Leveen, a scholar of African American literature and no dilettante in American history, has wisely left much of her scholarship in her notes, giving us vivid portraits of freed blacks in the north, and the ravages of war-torn Richmond. The opening scenes are rich in detail; later scenes back in Richmond move with the fiery pace of the war itself.

In addition to the first-person narrator of Mary, Leveen creates vivid secondary characters—the rebellious Bet Van Lew, Mary’s former mistress; the spy and Underground Railroad Scotsman McNiven; and, perhaps Leveen’s most intriguing portrayal, “Queen” Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy. Mary’s insider view of the Confederate White House is compelling, and Leveen handles those scenes with a deft touch.

Since Leveen can’t do much with historical reality (this is no alternative history where the South wins the war) or with the real Mary Bowser (about whom little is known), she instead gives Mary a Forrest Gump-like opportunity to stand in the place of the many African Americans who (mostly) anonymously contributed to their freedom from enslavement. There’s no surprise at the end of the book, but Leveen gives Mary a final moment that, tailor-made for the movies, is deeply emotionally satisfying.

I would highly recommend The Secrets of Mary Bowser to book groups, and particularly to younger readers as an alternative to those inexplicably popular vampire novels. Mary Bowser is a young woman who feels that fulfillment can only come with freedom, not enslavement, and she puts her life at risk so that she, and others, can achieve it. The message in this novel is one of empowerment. And if your group invites authors to attend in person or by Skype, consider inviting Ms. Leveen. She’s a hoot.

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