Review by Kathleen Pohlig
Who would have guessed that I would find a Civil War-era historic novel set in Richmond, Virginia while travelling in Ireland? I stopped in a bookshop in Ennis and discovered Lois Leveen’s book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser.
There are few facts known about Mary Bowser’s life but we do know she was a black slave who served the prominent Van Lew family in their Richmond mansion. She was freed and educated in Philadelphia but eventually came back to Richmond and was part of a spy-ring that passed vital Confederate military information to Union leadership.
Biographies and at least one historic novel have been written about Elizabeth (or “Lizzie” or “Bet”) Van Lew and some of her surviving diaries mention Mary. Records from St. John’s Church in Richmond (the site of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech) provide evidence of both Mary’s baptism and marriage there, an unusual occurrence for any black slave.
Leveen, with Harvard degrees in both literature and history, first came across the name Mary Bowser in a book of women’s history. Intrigued, she set out to learn more, and the result is a rich, historically accurate story of the life of a young slave woman prior to and during the Civil War.
An only child, Mary is lucky to live and work with her mother and to visit her father regularly. She is bright and eager to learn; her photographic memory is later key to her ability to retain information when she plays the role of an illiterate slave in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
In Philadelphia, Mary learned racism was not limited to the South and struggled to learn the “rules” of living in a racist, classist and sexist society. As the story develops, she grows in courage and confidence and we move with her through the struggles of everyday life, family sorrows, love and sacrifice as she learns that everything comes with a cost, even freedom.
A story of historic interest with strong women characters, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is well worth the read!
Kathleen Pohlig is owner of Cherry Street Books in Alexandria.