Book Review: “The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel” by Lois Leveen

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Mary Bowser was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia before the Civil War. She fortunately grew up knowing both of her parents. Her mother worked as a house slave in the Van Lews mansion. Her father lived nearby, working as a blacksmith. Also fortunate, Bet, the daughter of the Van Lews, saw how bright and intelligent Mary was. Since Bet opposed slavery, she taught Mary to read. After freeing Mary and her mother, Bet Van Lews paid to send Mary alone to Philadelphia to become educated. Mary struggled to adjust to life as a free Negro without the guidance of her parents. Through a good friend from school she became involved in the Underground Railroad. 

A Union spy during the Civil War

After finishing her education and reaching adulthood in Philadelphia, Mary realizes that supporting the individual Negroes efforts to escape slavery is not enough. And so, she returns to Richmond not just to be near her father who is still enslaved but to help the Union cause to free the Negro. She joins the cause as a Union spy. Mary pretends to be an ignorant, uneducated slave girl for the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Once the Civil War breaks out, Mary provides valuable espionage to the Union side successfully masquerading as a witless slave. 

Author Lois Leveen writes well and provides historical insight. Through Leveen, we enter into the controlled and restricted life of slaves in Richmond. Plus, we then learn about the racist humiliations the free Negroes face in Philadelphia. I found the book engrossing, educational and historically accurate. Leveen creates a personal story within the historical backdrop of the Civil War and the characters of real people who lived at the time. Indeed, Mary Bowser actually was a woman born into slavery who became a Union spy; but as the author describes, history doesn’t provide much information about women, African Americans, or slaves. 

If you like historical fiction and enjoy learning more about our own American history, I highly recommend this book. For more information, go to Author Lois Leveen’s website.