The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
I love the book, it’s brilliantly written. When I’m reading it I feel like I’m there among the characters, and part of the conversation. The book is hard to put down to because of the adventure and intrigue that comes with a story as powerful as Mary Bowser’s is. I also find it fascinating how the Willy Lynch syndrome had already kick in. The self-hatred, envy and jealousy we were taught to have for each other ,way back when, let’s replace it with self-esteem, decent, and love. Mary Bowser is my HEROINE.”
Lowell Ward is an activist with the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters.
Author, Lois Leveen transported me back to the Civil War era in The Secrets if Mary Bowser.
Although it is fact that its main characters lived, that there were spies for the Union, that the underground railroad existed, that a colored society existed in Philadelphia, there is limited record of what it actually was like for people who lived during these trying times. It takes the research and imagination of a writer to create the realistic setting and to develop the characters of the time, masterfully done by Lois Leveen.
Through the eyes of our heroine, Mary Bowser, we learn of the overt and subtle prejudice against colored freed people, as well as the social order among freed (e.g., to sew for charity) and enslaved.
A takeaway from the novel was that one could be sustained in one’s convictions by taking the long view that one’s efforts could eventually make lives better for others (e.g., Mary’s belief that she had a mission in life), embodied by Mary, Wilson, Bet and others, both white and colored. Also, the personal dignity of Mary, who envisioned a life of greater importance for herself than being an accessory to her first beau. The novel also shows us the compassion of the individual for others, a counterweight to the prevailing inhuman treatment of slaves at the time.”
I loved Mary Bowser, especially her contrariness. She lived a life that made no separation between the personal and political. She was ruthless and astute in her analyses of the people and events taking place around her. And of course she had enormous courage. I wish I’d known her.”
Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits. She is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs. She is also active with the All Stars Project’s Committee for Independent Community Action.
I had no idea who Mary Bowser was as we Americans are not good at teaching our history certainly not slave history. I want to thank Lois Leveen for giving me a history lesson I didn’t know I really needed. In reading the book I was awestruck who by a slave who risked everything to get justice for her people. They say some people are born great and other have greatness thrust upon them in Mary Bowser’s case it is both. Although she was granted freedom and was able to be educated she wasn’t really free. She realized to be free she would have to take matters in her own hand using a life of lessons learned against those who would enslave her people. Her foes supposed smarts show they were not the masters of the universe they thought they were. They never realized that Mary who toiled as a drudge in their midst was the one who ultimately brought them down. Slavery has not gone away or has the institutional racism that still permeates our society today. This book should be required reading in every high school in America. We need to know our history to come to grips with it and this book can help us do that.”
Maureen Albanese is an administrative assistant and activist. She lives in Manhattan.
I loved this book and read it in 3 days on Kindle. It is a page turner. This is a remarkable story and kudos to the author Lois Leveen for writing such a fascinating and meticulous account of a little known piece of history. Yes it depicts the difference in what racism looked like in the North and South during the era of the Civil War. One of the things that I found interesting was how the house slaves and plantation slaves were treated. Also Mary Bowser was lucky in that one of her masters, the daughter of the plantation was against slavery and helped her get educated and free. It also depicts some of Mary’s conflicts over how slavery was depicted. While it was awful, it wasn’t just people being beaten and hung on a tree which is the way it was portrayed in a lot of the political propaganda of the abolitionists. And since this is historical fiction we don’t know the extent to which Mary might have been abused physically.
She also had a gift of a photographic memory and decided to use that to help end slavery and be a spy.
One of the most astonishing parts of the book for me was how she extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. Was this part true? A possible question for the author.
She was obviously very smart and able to evade detection. However the environment that she was in, i.e. when she lived in Jefferson Davis’s house, shows the level of racism where a black woman slave in particular would never be seen capable of reading, writing or thinking, and definitely not smart enough to be a spy. So she was able to use that to work in her favor. They tried to accuse a white man. And the person who guessed part of her secret was another female slave that she worked with.
As someone who is an activist in the independent political movement it gives the word “perseverance” new meaning. I look forward to other books by this author.”
Helen Abel is a political activist with Independent Voice in California and on staff of Life Performance Coaching in San Francisco.