Reader’s Forum — Harry Kresky

Lois Leveen’s historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, tells the inspiring story of a young woman born into slavery in Richmond VA who became a spy for the Union with access to the papers and conversations of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The book portrays many aspects of America before and during the civil war: the cruelty of slavery; the courage of African-Americans who fought against it; the conflicted P1100330relationship between African-Americans (slave and free) active in the struggle and white abolitionists; the agonizingly slow, but inexorable defeat of the Confederacy.

It is also a story about human development. Mary Bowser’s parents, forced to live apart as slaves with different masters, instilled in their daughter a determination to be free, the importance of focusing and working towards that goal, and the need to become worldlier.  She had the good fortune to be bought and freed by an anti-slavery member of the family that owned her and, at her sponsor’s urging (and with the full support of her parents), moved to Philadelphia where she was able to study at a school for freed African-Americans.  And, of course, that meant leaving her parents behind in Richmond.

Mary Bowser proved to be the top student in her class, an avid learner outside of school, and an astute judge of character and analyst of social and political dynamics.  Whether her accomplishments are attributed to genetics, opportunity or luck (likely all of them), Bowser’s story demonstrates the importance of being able to live in a more cosmopolitan environment and interact with many different kinds of people, white and black, kind and not so kind.

And the responsibility on all of us to relate to people as who they can become.

Harry Kresky is counsel to and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters. He is also a poet (poems for friends).



Politics for the People

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Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

With Author Lois Leveen


Mary Bowser’s Photo?

While reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I wondered if there was a picture of Mary Bowser. It was during the Civil War that photography made its way much more deeply into American life and culture. Well, there is a photo of Mary Bowser, BUT…  Read Lois Leveen’s article from The Atlantic to find out about the photo and mystery unfurled.

The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me

A story of a mistaken identity reveals a lot about the history of black women in America, the challenges of understanding the past, and who we are today.

By: Lois Leveen                                                                                              June 27, 2013


Atlantic Mary Bowser image

Wikimedia Commons

It’s a blurry image. But in some ways that makes it the perfect portrait of Mary Bowser, an African American woman who became a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. What better representation of a spy who hid in plain sight than a photograph whose subject stares straight at the viewer yet whose features remain largely indecipherable? Small wonder the photograph has been circulated by NPR, Wikipedia, libraries, history projects, and in my book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser. There’s only one problem: The woman in the photograph was no Union spy. How did we get it so wrong?

Mary Bowser left behind a sparse historical trail. One early clue comes from a 1900, Richmond, Virginia, newspaper story about a white Union spy named Elizabeth Van Lew. In the story, the reporter included the tantalizing detail that before the war, Van Lew freed one of her family’s slaves and sent her North to be educated. The young woman later returned to Richmond and was placed in the Confederate White House as part of Van Lew’s spy ring. Van Lew’s own Civil War-era diary describes her reliance on an African American referred to only as Mary, who was a key source for Van Lew’s intelligence network. Nearly half a century after the war, Van Lew’s niece identified the black woman as Mary Bowser, a revelation included in a June 1911 article in Harper’s Monthly.

Numerous books and articles repeated the tale of Bowser’s espionage, often embellished and without any verifiable sources. The advent of the Internet made it especially easy for the story to circulate, and a growing interest in black history and women’s history provided a steady audience for pieces about Bowser. Online pieces about Bowser could easily include an illustration — if one could be found.

The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women’s history and black history, can blind us to how much about the past remains unknowable.


As far as I can determine, the photograph began circulating in 2002, when Morning Edition ran a story about Bowser, and NPR included the photograph on their website, with a caption crediting it to “James A. Chambers, U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence.” A radio network might seem an unlikely venue for circulating a photograph, but NPR webpages are rife with images supporting each radio story, a fact that exemplifies the extent to which the Internet has made accessing and distributing visual content not only easy but seemingly necessary. (Try to find a popular, public-facing web page without any visuals.) 

When my publisher, HarperCollins, asked for images to include in my novel, I dutifully sent the picture purportedly of Bowser. With photographs of Van Lew, Jefferson Davis, and other Civil War figures easy to find, it seemed only fair to feature a picture of Bowser herself. Cautiously, I captioned the image as “rumored to be of Mary Bowser.” Ultimately, I couldn’t resist the urge to show what Bowser looked like, even though elements of the photograph had always troubled me.

As historian and expert on internet hoaxes T. Mills Kelly warns, we should be skeptical about any Internet source that fills a gap in the historical record too neatly. What was the likelihood that a woman for whom we have no birth or death dates, who used several aliases throughout her life, and who lived during the earliest decades of photography, happened to leave a clearly documented studio portrait?


My doubts about the image grew when I unearthed several post-war sources corroborating Bowser’s participation in the Richmond espionage ring. One of these documents indicates that in June of 1867, the slave-turned-spy, then using the surname Garvin, left the U.S. for the West Indies; after that date, she disappears from the historical record. But both the dress the figure in the photograph wears and the chair next to which she stands appear to be from a much later period. Could the only surviving portrait of Bowser really have been taken years, perhaps decades, after the woman herself otherwise seems to have vanished?

Diligence, doubt, and dumb luck — the great triumvirate of historical research — finally led me to an answer. In 2011, I’d contacted both NPR librarian Kee Malesky and the military office listed in NPR’s original caption for the photograph, but neither could provide any information about the image. Despite this seeming dead end, I kept seeking the original, and in January of 2013, I mentioned the mysterious provenance of the photograph to Paul Grasmehr, reference coordinator at the Pritzker Military Library. He put me in touch with Lori S. Tagg, command historian for the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, which inducted Bowser in 1995. Tagg searched their records and determined that “the Bowser photo most likely came from … the Virginia State Library Pictures Collection.”

This lead didn’t initially seem promising. Now known as the Library of Virginia, this institution contains no reference in its catalog to an image of Bowser. But when I contacted Dana Puga in their Prints and Photographs Collection, she confirmed that the famed photograph was indeed on file in the library, “in the form of a cabinet card from the Petersburg Studio [of] C. R. Rees.”

Quick research (on the Internet, I confess!) revealed that C. R. Rees took his first picture — a daguerreotype — around 1850. Cabinet cards began to be produced in the 1860s, suggesting a slim possibility that Mary Bowser might have posed for one. But C.R. Rees didn’t open a studio in Petersburg, Virginia, until around 1880, making it unlikely any image captured there was of my spy. Luckily, a few months later a speaking engagement at the Museum of the Confederacy brought me to Richmond, Virginia, where I could at last view the elusive original.


This is the moment a historian lives for — cradling a rare primary source in hand. And it was just as informative as I’d hoped. On the back of the cabinet card was written the name Mary Bowser, and the name was repeated on the attached mailing envelope, along with a street address in Petersburg.


Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia

So could this be my spy after all? The answer became clear when I turned the cabinet card over:


Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia

There, staring straight at the camera, was Mary Bowser, her features easily recognizable — unlike the blurry version found online. Just as clear was the date the image was created: 1900. A better match for the clothing and furniture, but not for the spy, who by the turn into the twentieth century would have been about sixty years old. The image is of Mary Bowser … just not the Mary Bowser we’ve been claiming her to be.Having my suspicions about the photograph’s authenticity confirmed left me more frustrated than vindicated. It doesn’t take any advanced training to look at a clearly dated artifact and ascertain whether it could reasonably relate to a figure whose active moment in history occurred decades earlier. Whoever cropped the image to the form in which it recurs online removed a critical piece of historical evidence. But the ease with which NPR, US Army Intelligence, and I have all participated in the mistaken circulation of this image also reveals how much our expectations of history are products of the way we live in the 21st century.

As a current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminds us, the Civil War was more or less contemporaneous with the advent of photography, resulting in an unprecedentedly visual experience of the conflict, even for Americans who never ventured anywhere near a battlefield. The subsequent century and a half of technological advances in capturing and reproducing images have so substantially increased our expectation — our demand — for reliable, historic visual sources that it can be difficult for us to understand how ahistoric this desire is. But in Mary Bowser’s own era, individuals didn’t have our expectations of visual certainty. They were far less likely to know what someone, even a public figure, looked like, as contemporary descriptions of Bowser reveal.

A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle who attended a lecture the former spy gave in September of 1865 described her as so “strongly resembling” the prominent abolitionist speaker Anna Dickinson that “they might, indeed, easily be mistaken for twin sisters.” Given that Anna Dickinson was white, this description suggests that the speaker was light enough to pass. Yet when Mary first returned to Richmond in 1860, she was arrested for going out without a pass, indicating that she was visually recognizable as “colored” and therefore assumed on sight either to be a slave in need of a pass or a free black in need of proof of her legal status. And when she happened to meet Charles Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1867, Beecher described her as “a Juno, done in somber marble … Her complexion was a deep brunette, her features regular, and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp.

“How are we to understand these contradictory sources? In an era in which photography was still in its infancy, it was rare to have a detailed sense of what someone beyond your immediate acquaintance looked like. The allusion to Anna Dickinson likely made sense to readers of the Eagle not as a specific physical description of the former intelligence agent but simply as a marker for the still unusual spectacle of a female speaker addressing an audience on political issues of the day. Although by our standards it might be regarded as an inaccurate comparison, the Eagle‘s description filled an expectation specific to its era, just as the photo purportedly of Bowser filled an expectation specific to our own era.

Bowser’s story evidences the wonderful truth that Americans of all backgrounds contributed to our history. But the enormous holes in what we have of her biography remind us that gender, race, and class also shaped how millions of Americans went unrecorded in what we rely on as the historical record, because they were restricted from holding property, voting, leaving wills, or being accurately recorded in censuses. Wanting to commemorate an African American woman who played such a dramatic part in the Civil War is laudable. Expecting to have a photograph of her was borderline ludicrous. (Consider that even what seems to most Americans today like basic information about the Civil War, the number of military deaths during the conflict, remains a matter of estimation and conjecture.)

The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women’s history and black history, can blind us to how much about the past remains unknowable. The paradox of the information age is that our unprecedented access to information feeds an expectation that every search will yield plentiful — and accurate — results. But the type of evidence that our 21st-century sensibilities most desire may be the least likely to exist.Uncovering the past is arduous work: Compare the ease with which an Internet search turns up the falsely labeled, cropped image of Mary Bowser with the number of sources I persistently contacted over a period of several years before locating the original cabinet card. Alas, in the age of the Internet, it may prove nearly impossible to curtail the use of that image as an avatar for the elusive slave-turned-spy, despite the definitive proof that it isn’t her.

Probing how our own desires shape our understanding of history can be revelatory. If a genie granted me the ability to learn any three things about Bowser, I wouldn’t choose what she looked like — it’s not nearly as important as understanding the choices she made that led to her extraordinary espionage, the dangers she faced in that position, or how she understood her own role in the struggle to end chattel slavery. But in telling her story, I admit I still find it hard not to want to offer a visual image, to present her in the way that is so quick, and so ubiquitous, today.



LOIS LEVEEN is a historian and the author of the novels The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse.    


Our Politics for the People

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Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen


Reader’s Forum–Dr. Jessie Fields

Thoughts on the novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser and the Civil War from Dr. Jessie Fields



The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a sensitive historical novel that highlights the participation of African Americans enslaved and free, in the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Mary Bowser was an enslaved young woman who was freed, lived in Philadelphia where she went to school, studied, read widely and was courted by but ultimately rejected the wealthy scion of a free black Philadelphia family. Mary returned to Richmond to care for her ill father and to work for emancipation. She posed as a slave in the Confederate White House and passed valuable information to the Union.

The novel is divided into three sections called books, Book One and Book Three take place in Richmond, Book Two in Philadelphia.

Mary’s mother, is the enslaved Minerva, a name that refers to the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, and to the Greek goddess Athena. During the years before slavery was ended by gradual emancipation in New York she was separated from her family and brought by the Van Lews to Virginia. Minerva teaches Mary to make riddles which includes lessons in being quick witted and observant. The ultimate riddle that Mary lives is her work as a spy communicating information in code straight from the desk of Jefferson Davis to General U. S. Grant and the Union Army. But Mary is not simply a spy for the preservation of the Union, she conveys or holds back information to ensure that the war is not ended without ending slavery.

One of the many features of the novel that deeply moved me was the portrayal of Mary’s family and how though enslaved they manage to make a home in Richmond, their relationship to each other is one of enduring closeness and deep love.  Her parents sacrificed greatly to allow their daughter to be free and she was determined to do all she could to end slavery.

 In Philadelphia Mary boards with an illiterate mother and daughter who refuse her offer to help them learn to read, she observes the poverty of many of the free black population, as well as the racism of the north where blacks were segregated, denied access to any except the most menial jobs, evicted from public vehicles, and were not accorded equal citizenship rights. Mary observes all this from her perspective of having lived in slavery and having family still enslaved. Eventually she becomes a key member of the Philadelphia underground anti-slavery network centered around the establishment of Alexander Jones, the undertaker and father of her closest friend Hattie. Mr. Jones funeral business is a stop on the Underground Railroad, with escaped slaves transported in coffins.

Wilson Bowser who Mary marries was a driver on the Underground Railroad from Richmond to Philadelphia, and he enlisted, as many African American men did, in the United States Colored Troops. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves was key to the Union victory in the Civil War. Also enslaved men, women and children contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy by leaving the plantations as soon as Union troops arrived.

Mary overhears many conversations in the Confederate White House (nicknamed the Gray House). Including conversations between Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Davis who Mary and others name Queen Varina and the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, who is from Louisiana and to whom Varina mangles the French Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverexpression tant pis. Mary names Benjamin “Aunt pis”. In one conversation between Varina Davis and Judah Benjamin on the likelihood that Queen Victoria will side with the Confederacy in the Civil War Varina says , “Britain needs us as much as we need her. Why, without Confederate cotton, what use are English mills?” Benjamin responds, “You might say the same for the New England mills, yet the Yankees make war with us.

They go on to discuss Lincoln’s offer to the border states of financial compensation for each slave in exchange for gradual emancipation. This proposal never ended up passing into law. Varina Davis defends the argument of the Confederacy that they were fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights to govern themselves. Benjamin responds, “You are correct. We do not fight for slavery. Neither does Lincoln (fight to end it). We fight to win, and so does he. But he is willing to sacrifice slavery in the process, while we are not.”

Mary took this conversation as substantiation of her mission to make the preservation of the Union contingent on emancipation from slavery. Slavery was the fatal flaw of the nation that cut violently into the soul of the country. Four score and seven years after the American Revolution it took a Civil War to end it.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.



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With Author Lois Leveen


Reader’s Forum–Joan DeCollibus on Mary Bowser and her Mother, Minerva



I just finished reading Lois Leveen’s story about Mary Bowser, a Virginia slave who was freed in her teenage years and went on to school in Philadelphia and became active in the Underground Railroad. While the story focuses on Mary and her journey out of slavery, on Mother’s Day weekend, I am thinking of her mom, Minerva.

Minerva raised Mary in a slave household where they lived together, serving the Van Lew family. Minerva’s husband and Mary’s dad worked for and lived with another slaver. They were only allowed to see each other on Sunday’s. Minerva raised her daughter with care in their slave household, always protecting her from the dangers of slavery and teaching her everything she could so that Mary could steer clear of trouble with the Van Lew’s.

Upon the death of her father, Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent abolitionist, inherited money, enough to buy the household slaves from her mother which she does. While Minerva and Mary are freed by Elizabeth, we are disappointed to learn that she can not buy Mary’s father’s freedom.

Elizabeth hatches a plan to educate Mary in Philadelphia. Mary’s mom stays on at the Van Lew household to be near her husband.

I was struck by the courage it must have taken Minerva to let her daughter go on to Philadelphia alone. Mary was going off to a city on her own at a time when she could have easily been enslaved again by any white person who claimed she was their runaway. Mary, as ever courageous as her mother, actually shielded Minerva from the greater dangers that she was exposed to as she was secretly working as an abolitionist spy.
If her mother had only known! I am sure she would have been worried to the core while also being very proud of the daughter she raised.

Today, growing up black in America continues to be a threat to young people who are routinely rounded up and harassed by the authorities. On Mother’s Day, my heart goes out to every mother raising kids in a world where their lives are undervalued and they face racism at every turn.

Joan DeCollibus, an independent, living in Manhattan, is the owner of, where she designs and produces clothing and accessories for little dogs and their humans.


Our Politics for the People

Conference Call 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

 Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover


Lois Leveen on Writing Historical Fiction

Give a listen to Lois Leveen’s 2013 interview on Live Wire Radio for a great discussion of the perils of writing historical fiction (she reads her article, “Fear of a Red Tractor” on the show and it is posted below); Mary Bowser; and the Civil War.


Authors, readers, critics, media − and booksellers.

Fear of a Red Tractor

Fear of a red tractor. That is what keeps a novelist up at night.

Remember the good ol’ days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Okay, maybe those days weren’t so good. But at least back then, the dentist was probably too busy to be a literary critic, too. My dentist, however, is another matter.

Last year, while giving my molars the once over, the dear old DMD told me about a book he’d been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of “a red John Deere tractor” sitting in a field. He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, “everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor.”


Only a West Coast dentist can make a New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.

Authors — and our editors — are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that “real” detail wrong, you have blown it big time.

As it happens, one of my New York editors is originally from Virginia, where much of my novel is set. She suggested that the bird’s nest I’d tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that’s the state tree of Virginia — it would sound more specific, less generically Southern.

As it also happens, I’m an obsessed lunatic. I’d already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page one of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.

As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I’d made a reference to a straight razor.

You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any 19th-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and crossed it out.


Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone’s dad used, before disposables came along). Until then, they were just razors.

who you calling

In writing a novel based on a real person, I focused on crafting a compelling story. Which means sometimes I intentionally deviated from what I knew to be true. I’ve also unearthed new facts about Mary Bowser since drafting the novel (I told you I’m an obsessed lunatic — of course I’m still researching), which means those details aren’t in the book. Sometimes when I was writing, I made something up that I later learned was true, or close to the truth, which gives me goosebumps.

Still, I’m sure there are things I got wrong without realizing, in those devilish details. So if you happen upon a big ol’ red John Deere in the field of my fiction, please forgive me. And don’t tell my dentist.


Our Politics for the People Conference Call 

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.


Politics for the People May Column on IVN

Below is my Politics for the People column from IVN this month.  It includes Caroline Donnola’s review of The Secrets of Mary Bowser.  Then join us as we read Lois Leveen’s wonderful historical novel.  Our conference call with Lois will be on Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Politics for the People Book Club: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Editor’s note: this article was co-authored by Cathy Stewart (introduction) and Caroline Donnola (main article).

The Politics for the People (P4P) Book Club brings together independent-minded Americans to read a wide range of books—both fiction and non-fiction—of interest to independents.  With each selection, we have a lively dialogue on the P4P blog culminating in an hour conference call conversation with our author.

We just finished reading Greg Orman’s book, A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream. On Sunday, April 15th we spent an hour with Greg talking about his current independent campaign for Governor of Kansas; the lessons he learned in his independent run for US Senate in 2014, and much more.

You can listen to our conversation on the blog.

Our next selection is the historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.  I am a fan of historical fiction. It can free us up to actually gain a deeper understanding of a particular moment in time, the leaders, the lives and the actions of ordinary people that shape history.

This book was recommended by P4P member Caroline Donnola, and I asked her to write the review below.  You can visit the blog, read along and join us on Sunday, June 3rd  at 7 pm EST when we will be talking with author Lois Leveen.

politics for the people


I’ve always loved to read, and then I majored in literature and writing. A lifelong fan of history, I often gravitate toward historical fiction as it combines these two great loves. Every day, on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I travel with my well-stocked Kindle. When I discovered The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, I knew I wanted to share it with members of the Politics for the People Book Club.

The story is an intriguing one. As a young girl, Mary, a Virginia slave, is freed by Bet, the daughter of her master who sends Mary to Philadelphia to be educated. There Mary lives as a free Black woman and becomes active in the Underground Railroad. She builds a new life for herself.

But when Mary’s mother dies and her father becomes ill, she returns to Richmond where she must live, once again, as a slave. When she sees the chance to continue her fight for freedom for all slaves, she becomes a servant in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ household where she spies on him and reports her findings to Union commanders.

Based on a true story and a real heroine, most of us have never heard of Mary Bowser. And because so little is known about her, the author is forced to imagine how Mary would think, speak and act as a child, in addition to as an educated woman and as a spy who must speak and act like a slave to conceal her identity.

Leveen creates Mary’s world and populates it with real and imagined historical figures in the years before and during the Civil War. We see, hear and feel Mary’s world of loving parents who are determined for Mary to have a better life.

We meet Elizabeth (Bet) Van Lew, the real-life daughter of Mary’s slaveholder who becomes an abolitionist, and upon her father’s death, frees all of her family’s slaves. But Bet cannot free Mary’s father who is owned by another family, and Mary’s mother will not leave without him. We feel Mary’s conflicts as she moves to Philadelphia to live as a free woman but has to leave her parents behind.

During her years in Philadelphia, Mary gets to know ordinary and extraordinary fellow travelers—free Blacks, Quakers and other abolitionists. She learns which parts of town she cannot enter and she encounters hate-filled white mobs.

We learn about the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the fights that took place amongst the abolitionists. We hear their arguments about John Brown, and we discover a historic event that took place when the train carrying his dead body passes through Philadelphia on its way to Brown’s burial site. We experience major Civil War battles and turning points. We witness Mary carefully and painstakingly carrying out her work as a Union spy.

I loved how the author was able to get inside Mary’s turbulent thoughts, her fears, her willingness to risk everything. Her relationships with her friends, parents, colleagues, and husband are complex and nuanced. In particular, her relationship with Bet is thorny, but it develops through their joint efforts to end slavery.

Leveen begins the book with two quotes that help shed light on how she thinks about this mix of history and imaginings. From Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience… Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises.”

And from African American abolitionist and women’s rights leader Maria Stewart:

“Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?”

In The Secrets of Mary Bowser, we go on a journey filled with love, hope, pain, and sorrow. I hope you will relish this journey as I did and join the Politics for the People call with author Lois Leveen on Sunday, June 3rd.


National Poetry Month picks by Lois Leveen and Mary Bowser

Today we conclude our celebration of National Poetry month and begin to turn our attention to our next book club selection, the historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.  The book is based on the life of Mary Bowser, a slave freed by her owner, who would go on to be educated in Philadelphia and ultimately return to the South where she lived once again as a slave and became a Union spy (how’s that for a teaser!).

I asked Lois Leveen to share two favorite poems with us.  She shared a personal pick and a pick that Mary Bowser might make for us. Here is what Lois writes:

As for poems, in the novel, I have Mary read a wide variety of literature, in part to sneak in more (literary) history by introducing twenty-first-century readers to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century black writers. So if Mary were choosing a poem, she might go with “The Slave Auction” by Frances Watkins Harper (in my novel, she is called Frances Watkins because she did not marry and change her name until much later than the novel takes place)….

Lois L alternateI, having a broader range of poetry to choose from than my fictionalized protagonist, would likely choose ““A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” by Gwendolyn Brooks.  Brooks wrote many moving poems, but this one I find especially powerful, first because of how she chooses to represent the murder of Emmett Till.  Brooks imagines herself “into” the perspective of a woman with whom we might expect her to have nothing in common, and for whom we might think she would have no sympathy.  But through this imagining, Brooks is able to expose how the violent, patriarchal racism that destroys black lives has a correspondingly insidious effect on white women and white children as well.  It exposes racism as being a desire for absolute power, a desire that will devastate even what it claims to love.

Well, happy National Poetry month!


The Slave Auction



The sale began—young girls were there,
   Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
   Revealed their anguish and distress.


And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
   And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
   While tyrants bartered them for gold.


And woman, with her love and truth—
   For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
   With anguish none may paint or tell.


And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
   The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
   Were gathered in that mournful band.


Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
   And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
   Whose loved are rudely torn away.


Ye may not know how desolate
   Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
   Will press the life-drops from the heart.




A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon



From the first it had been like a
Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
understood–the ballads they had set her to, in school.

Herself: the milk-white maid, the “maid mild”
Of the ballad. Pursued
By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince.
The Happiness-Ever-After.
That was worth anything.
It was good to be a “maid mild.”
That made the breath go fast.

Her bacon burned. She
Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
Did well. She set out a jar
Of her new quince preserve.

. . . But there was something about the matter of the Dark Villain.
He should have been older, perhaps.
The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about
When his menace possessed undisputed breath, undisputed height,
And best of all, when history was cluttered
With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.

The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified
When the Dark Villain was a blackish child
Of Fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty,
And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder
Of its infant softness.

That boy must have been surprised! For
These were grown-ups. Grown-ups were supposed to be wise.
And the Fine Prince–and that other–so tall, so broad, so
Grown! Perhaps the boy had never guessed
That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under,
Waited the baby full of tantrums.
It occurred to her that there may have been something
Ridiculous to the picture of the Fine Prince
Rushing (rich with the breadth and height and
Mature solidness whose lack, in the Dark Villain, was impressing her,
Confronting her more and more as this first day after the trial
And acquittal (wore on) rushing
With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed)
That little foe. So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done
Against her, or if anything had been done.
The breaks were everywhere. That she could think
Of no thread capable of the necessary

She made the babies sit in their places at the table.
Then, before calling HIM, she hurried
To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary
To be more beautiful than ever.
The beautiful wife.
For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though
Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth it?
Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stirring bravado, The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes,
The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?
Whatever she might feel or half-feel, the lipstick necessity was something apart. HE must never conclude
That she had not been worth it.

HE sat down, the Fine Prince, and
Began buttering a biscuit. HE looked at HIS hands.
More papers were in from the North, HE mumbled. More maddening headlines.
With their pepper-words, “bestiality,” and “barbarism,” and
The half-sneers HE had mastered for the trial worked across
HIS sweet and pretty face.

What HE’d like to do, HE explained, was kill them all.
The time lost. The unwanted fame.
Still, it had been fun to show those intruders
A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother,
That sassy, Northern, brown-black–

Nothing could stop Mississippi.
HE knew that. Big fella
Knew that.
And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that.
They could send in their petitions, and scar
Their newspapers with bleeding headlines. Their governors
Could appeal to Washington . . .

“What I want,” the older baby said, “is ‘lasses on my jam.”
Whereupon the younger baby
Picked up the molasses pitcher and threw
The molasses in his brother’s face. Instantly
The Fine Prince leaned across the table and slapped
The small and smiling criminal.
She did not speak. When the HAND
Came down and away, and she could look at her child,
At her baby-child,
She could think only of blood.
Surely her baby’s cheek
Had disappeared, and in its place, surely,
Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end.
She shook her had. It was not true, of course.
It was not true at all. The
Child’s face was as always, the
Color of the paste in her paste-jar.

She left the table, to the tune of the children’s lamentations, which were shriller
Than ever. She
Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That
Was one of the new Somethings–
The fear,
Tying her as with iron.

Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her
To the window. The children were whimpering now.
Such bits of tots. And she, their mother,
Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulders, still
Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea
That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly,
Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders,
And over all of Earth and Mars.

He whispered something to her, did the Fine Prince, something about love and night and intention.
She heard no hoof-beat of the horse and saw no flash of the shining steel.

He pulled her face around to meet
His, and there it was, close close,
For the first time in all the days and nights.
His mouth, wet and red,
So very, very, very red,
Closed over hers.

Then a sickness heaved within her. The courtroom Coca-Cola,
The courtroom beer and hate and sweat and drone,
Pushed like a wall against her. She wanted to bear it.
But his mouth would not go away and neither would the
Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman’s eyes.

She did not scream.
She stood there.
But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them–big,
Bigger than all magnolias.

The last bleak news of the ballad.
The rest of the rugged music.
The last quatrain.




With Author Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

SUNDAY, June 3rd @ 7 PM EST


Next Selection–The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover


Author’s Note

This novel tells the story of a real person, Mary Bowser. Born a slave in Richmond, Virginia, Mary was freed and educated in the North but returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War. Like many ordinary people who choose what is right rather than what is easy, she did extraordinary things.

Few details about Mary Bowser are known today. In the nineteenth century, little effort was made to record the daily lives of most slaves, free blacks, or women of Lois L alternateany race. The scant facts about Mary Bowser that survive cannot tell us what we most want to know: What experiences in freedom would make her risk her life in a war she couldn’t be sure would bring emancipation? How did this educated African American woman feel, subjecting herself to people who regarded her as ignorant and even unhuman? How did living amid the death and destruction of America’s bloodiest war affect her?

The Secrets of Mary Bowser interweaves historical figures, factual events, even actual correspondence and newspaper clippings, with fictional scenes, imagined characters, and invented dialogue, to answer these questions. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived at the same time as Mary Bowser (and who, in the style of the period, often said man when today we would say person), I believe that the crises of an individual life can shed light on national crises. The novel tells the story of one woman’s life—but it also tells the story of a nation torn apart by slavery, and brought back together by the daily bravery of countless people like Mary Bowser.

—Lois Leveen


Lois will be my guest on the Politics for the People conference call on Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.  So, get your copy of The Secrets of Mary Bowser and start reading today.

Lois also wanted to invite those P4P members who would like an autographed copy of the book to purchase your book from Broadway Books, an independent bookstore in Portland, OR.  You can order your book  and when you are in the check out, there will be a comment section that says: “Use this area for special instructions or questions regarding your order.” You can request an autographed copy or if you would like a more personal message, you can make that request here as well.   




With Author Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

SUNDAY, June 3rd @ 7 PM EST



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