The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a based on the life of Mary Bowser, a black woman who spied on the Confederates during the Civil War while working in Jefferson Davis’s home.
I loved reading about her journey from being a slave to becoming an educated woman and then pretending to be a slave so she could help end slavery. Unfortunately despite Mary Bowser being a real person due to her gender and race nothing is really known about her, so the historical accuracy of this book isn’t the highest. I enjoyed reading about her struggle to be an educated black woman in a time when neither of those things were appreciated. I also appreciated that this is a book that is trying to glorify a woman who was an integral part of the Civil War. Finally I enjoyed Mary as a character and the relationships she made with people.
Another good part of the book was how it described the Confederate government and how she managed to evade suspicion by relying on their belief that a black woman wouldn’t be smart or brave enough to spy on them.
However, as much as I loved reading about Ms. Bowser, there is a part of this book I can’t ignore. The woman who freed Mary was named Elizabeth Van Lew (she was a slave to her family and she freed her when she received her inheritance from her father’s death). She was an abolitionist and feminist and became the first female Post Master of Richmond. She was a real historical figure who actually ran the Richmond spy ring that Mary was apart of and that included more than 300 people. I mention this because the book treats her as a self-righteous fool who at first fights for abolition more to spite her family than out of genuine compassion for slaves. She ran a spy ring in real life and yet the book treats her as an idiot whose greatest achievements were actually Mary’s. The reason this bothers me is that it seems almost disrespectful to a woman who fought for the things she believed in and was later ostracized by society because of her differences. An unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a lot of knowledge on what Mary Bowser’s life was like due to her status as a black woman and no one knows what happened to her after the war. Thus it is almost hypocritical for the author to portray Elizabeth in a way that discredits and denies her contributions to the war effort in order to shed light on a woman whose own contributions to the war effort were forgotten about.
I would recommend this book.
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard