Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Lois Leveen


On Sunday, June 3rd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Lois Leveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Lois says that she “dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet.” She has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC and UCLA and has taught at UCLA and Reed College.

In addition to being a novelist, Lois is a frequent essayist and contributor to the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Huffington Post and many other publications, literary and scholarly journals.

In the opening section of the call, you can hear Lois and I discuss how she first met Mary Bowser and decided to write the book.  We talk about the relationship between Mary and Bet Van Lew, the woman who freed her and was her collaborator in spying on the Confederacy.

Give a listen here or below:


Caroline Donnola, who orginally recommended The Secrets of Mary Bowser to be a Politics for the People selection, asked Lois how she created and built out the characters of the book, especially Mary Bowser.  How did she decide what she should sound like, how she should think, how she would respond to her many life challenges?  You can hear their conversation here or below:


Helen Abel from CA shared that one of the most astonishing parts of the book for her was how Mary Bowser 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. She asked Lois whether she this part of the book was something she uncovered in her research and whether there were other spies who impacted the civil war in this or in similar ways?  Listen to Lois’ answer:


Alice Rydel was eager to ask Lois if she considered herself a social activist? Give a listen to her answer:


Dr. Jessie Fields shared with us how much she appreciated The Secrets of Mary Bowser, and how much it “…conveys a great deal of African American history in a very intimate fashion, that history also being integral to American history. ” She asked Lois how her study of African American literature influenced the writing of the novel. Lois talked about how much she learned from authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many African American women authors about “how difficult it is to negotiate protecting your family in a place where you legally really have very few or no protection of them.”  She talks about the creation of Mary Bowser’s voice, and the private school education she received.  You can hear the full response here and below:


Jenn Bullock, the coordinator of Independent Pennslyvanians commented on how “powerfully and unapologetically” Lois portrayed the racism in Philadelphia, particularly among white progressives.  You can listen to Lois’ response.  She talks about how “not everybody who was antislavery would have described themselves as an abolitionist.”


Harry Kresky and Lois talked about Clarence Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, the movie Black Panther and, as Harry put it, the complicated and controversial “issue of what African Americans and others do with opportunity, giving back so called…”  A fascinating conversation to listen to:


Julie Leak shared how much she loved the book and some of her reminisces of growing up in the South.  Lois talked about a visit to Richmond during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation and a visit to Lumpkin’s Alley with an African American woman whose family lived in Richmond for generations.  Give a listen:


You can listen to our entire conversation below:


And if you would like to learn more about Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, take a look at this wonderful CSPAN video, “A Spy in the Confederate White House” from 2013. The video features Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond; Lois Leveen; and Elizabeth Varon, Professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. 

Lois’ second book is Juliet’s Nurse, which tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of Juliet’s nurse.  I have added this to my summer reading list.


We will announce our next selection soon.




Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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