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The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A Novel by [Leveen, Lois]
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4.5 out of 5 stars 386 customer reviews

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Length: 673 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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Editorial Reviews

Review

“Masterfully written, The Secrets of Mary Bowser shines a new light onto our country’s darkest history. Balancing fire and grace, the story of Mary Bowser is an ethical journey we won’t soon forget, one that takes us from hatred to courage to love.” (Brunonia Barry, bestselling author of The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places)

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a good old-fashioned historical novel packed with drama, intrigue, love, loss, and most of all, the resilience of a remarkable heroine who forges her own destiny from the first page. What a treat!” (-Kelly O'Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott)

“Deftly balancing history, romance and adventure, Leveen honors the life and historical importance of a brave, resourceful woman.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Told with clarity, confidence, and courage, The Secrets of Mary Bowser illuminates an untold and important story about slavery, the Civil War, and the role of women in achieving emancipation. A riveting and powerful book.” (Naseem Rakha, internationally bestselling author of The Crying Tree)

“Lois Leveen has written a captivating novel...[she] demonstrates considerable skill bringing the historical period to life. Mary’s world is nuanced and complicated, but the reader is thoroughly drawn into it, never lost. The narrative voice carries with it a seamless authority, rare in novels of this type.” (Oregonian)

“Deftly integrating historical research into this gripping tale of adventure, love, and national conflict, Leveen brings Mary to life and evenhandedly reveals the humanity on both sides of America’s deadliest war.” (Publishers Weekly)

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is not only fascinating reading, but also historical fiction of the highest caliber.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

“Author Lois Leveen’s meticulously researched historical fiction is best consumed with sweet tea and a porch swing.” (DailyCandy.com)

“This novel will sweep you into the world of Mary Bowser without making you feel as if you’re sitting in school instead of on the beach.” (Statesman Journal (Oregon))

Review

“Masterfully written, The Secrets of Mary Bowser shines a new light onto our country’s darkest history. Balancing fire and grace, the story of Mary Bowser is an ethical journey we won’t soon forget, one that takes us from hatred to courage to love.” (Brunonia Barry, bestselling author of The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places )

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a good old-fashioned historical novel packed with drama, intrigue, love, loss, and most of all, the resilience of a remarkable heroine who forges her own destiny from the first page. What a treat!” (-Kelly O'Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott )

“Deftly balancing history, romance and adventure, Leveen honors the life and historical importance of a brave, resourceful woman.” (Kirkus Reviews )

“Told with clarity, confidence, and courage, The Secrets of Mary Bowser illuminates an untold and important story about slavery, the Civil War, and the role of women in achieving emancipation. A riveting and powerful book.” (Naseem Rakha, internationally bestselling author of The Crying Tree )

“Lois Leveen has written a captivating novel...[she] demonstrates considerable skill bringing the historical period to life. Mary’s world is nuanced and complicated, but the reader is thoroughly drawn into it, never lost. The narrative voice carries with it a seamless authority, rare in novels of this type.” (Oregonian )

Product Details

  • File Size: 2993 KB
  • Print Length: 673 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (May 15, 2012)
  • Publication Date: May 15, 2012
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B006FNXGWA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #58,507 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Mary Bowser was a real person, a freed slave who spied for the Union during the Civil War. She was highly educated, but played the "ignorant darky," posing as a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Letting the white people believe she was illiterate allowed her access to the war correspondence on Davis's desk. She had a photographic memory, so she would memorize the information, then convert it to code to be sent north to the Union leaders.

The first half of the book covers Mary's life before the Civil War, first as a slave in Richmond, Virginia, then as a free person in Philadelphia, where she was sent at age 12 for her education. When the war began, she chose to return to Richmond, risking everything to serve the cause of freedom. The second half covers that Civil War period. Mary Bowser was incredibly brave for one so young, working with the Underground Railroad as a teen and then as a spy in her early twenties.

If you like to use fiction to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of history, this book is worth a little patience in the reading. I recommend looking at the bonus material in the back of the book before beginning the novel. It provides valuable context, and there are even some photos of buildings and people important to the story.

Readers who prefer strict adherence to fact in their historical fiction should note that this is an imaginative reconstruction of Mary Bowser's life. Records were not kept of the lives of black people, so the author took what little was known and used her expertise as a historian to fill in the rest. At the back of the book, Leveen does make clear specifically what is known and what had to be imagined.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Mary Bowser in this historical novel grew up as a slave to
northerners living in Richmond, Va, who freed her and sent her north
for schooling. She was bright, stubborn, hardworking, and not afraid
to make really tough choices. Mary only appears in the historical
record a few times, it seems, so that the author has created a plausible
character set against the lead up to the Civil War and the War itself.
Her courage is amazing. I found it surprising that the author was
quite negative about the white woman who freed Mary and her mother,
who also worked hard at enormous risk to get information to the
Union during the War. Perhaps it was to keep the reader focused
on Mary as the hero of this book.

I didn't find this book to be horribly dark, despite the deprivation
and violence, or a hard read. It was a page-turner that I tore
through in just a few days, and I was very sorry when I came to the
end.

Anybody interested in women's history, the Civil War, slavery, or
just looking for a good read would enjoy this book, I believe.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Enjoyed reading this book up to about 2/3 of the way through. Then it became tedious. Not sure if the author was just trying to show off or to fill pages. The story was interesting but the depiction of Mary was too unbelievable. You'd think she altered the events and won the war single-handed. We were told in the beginning that there was very little factual history of Mary Bowser, but the author managed to make a nearly 500 page novel out of those few facts. The book was an interesting look at the Civil War era and elucidated the social injustices in both the South and the North.
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