The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen


The Secrets of Mary Bowser is the story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who returns to Richmond, Virginia to spy for the Union.  Mary and her mother are slaves for the prominent and wealthy Van Lew family.  When Mary is 12,  Bree Van Lew decides to free Mary and her mother, and to pay for Mary’s education in Philadelphia.  At school, Mary befriends Hattie, whose father is an undertaker and helps slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.  Mary gets involved and is soon helping slaves journey north.  When the Civil War starts, members of the abolitionist movement convince Mary to return to Richmond and go “under cover” as a slave in Jefferson Davis’ house.  There she overhears top-secret conversations with other Confederates, and reads documents detailing Confederate strategy.  Mary conveys her intel to the abolitionists.  Really, if this wasn’t based on a true story, I wouldn’t believe it.  It was a good read, and a great opportunity to be inspired by the courage of a young woman willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of others.  Her compassion is remarkable, especially in the face of the difficult decisions she must make and the risks she chooses to take.  I am intrigued by the parallels between Mary and some of today’s refugees.  The challenges and choices are not so different.

A great first novel-worth reading and discussing!