Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen


By Arlene Winkler


In The Secrets of Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen has positioned the exploits of a quick thinking black heroine in a historically accurate context, setting the stage for a clever twist on the cultural blindness that, to this day, continues to shape our attitudes about race and gender.


Leveen is that rarity among authors of historical novels, a spinner of what-ifs with the right creds.  A much published Harvard grad who refers to herself as a “recovering academic,” she is a contributor to the New York Times Disunion blog, (an ongoing series examining the people and events around the Civil War) and has written numerous articles on the enslaved and free black community in Richmond, Virginia. The Secrets of Mary Bowser, her first novel, was inspired by her research into the life of a Richmond slave who became a spy for the Union army.


The real Mary was born into slavery, the child of a house slave owned by the wealthy John Van Lew.  After his death in the early 1850s (a full decade before the onset of the Civil War) his Quaker-educated daughter freed all of her slaves and used her sizable inheritance to buy and free other members of their families.  Many of them, including Mary’s mother, continued to work for her as paid servants.  Elizabeth Van Lew was an outspoken and passionate abolitionist, barely tolerated by her wealthy contemporaries who dismissed her as an old maid; referred to her as Crazy ‘Bet. Little did they know that not-so-crazy ‘Bet ran an elaborate spy ring for the Union, with the help of her former slaves; using their daily trips to and from her family farm as a way to pass information.  One of her greatest accomplishments was installing one of them as a spy in the Jefferson Davis Gray House –and therein hangs the tale.


The story opens in the naive voice of a frightened slave when her owner discovers she knows how to read.  When her mother manages to explain it away as a case of perfect recall, she is secretly manumitted by her well-meaning mistress and sent up North to be educated at a Quaker-run school for Negro Women.  In effect she is literally expelled from the only life she has ever known, and thrust into the not-very-welcoming arms of abolitionist Philadelphia—where she quickly discovers that enlightened attitudes about slavery don’t necessarily translate to racial acceptance.


Every encounter deepens the paradox; Now that she’s free, she must live on the colored side of town, and share a room in the tiny flat of a poor black seamstress.  When she puts on a fancy new dress to attend an important social event, she must  balance the reality of dark-skinned slavery against the entitlement of a wealthy light-skinned community that looks down on her.


Nevertheless, Mary is determined to hold onto her values. She embraces the rigor of her studies, and begins to form the lasting friendships that will shape her future. Although she is swept off her feet by the handsome brother of one of her light-skinned classmates, she breaks it off when she realizes he expects her to change.  Instead she moves in to help the family of a school friend and begins her involvement with the underground railroad—fueled by her mother’s faith-driven passion for freedom and her deep obligation to Miss ‘Bet—who ultimately proves as demanding as she is idealistic.   


When Miss ‘Bet summons Mary back to Richmond, it is because she wants to insert her, as a slave, inside the Jefferson Davis Gray House.  With great insight and respect for her character, Leveen describes the humiliation of becoming invisible in order to blend into the background while Davis meets with his cabinet members; to suffer in silence, the physical abuse of his wife and children and at the same time deflect the attention of the other slaves in the house, while she reads the reports from his generals.  Even when Davis suspects that he has a leak, it never crosses his mind that it might be the slave who sweeps the ashes from his fireplace.


Mary succeeds at her ruse, spending her days listening, and her nights translating what she’s learned into Miss ‘Bet’s secret cipher. But she is exhausted and starving, like most of Richmond, and so paranoid she loses control one night and kills a Confederate soldier.  It is Miss ‘Bet, whom she no longer trusts, who advises her it is time to step back and let others finish her work.  Deeply shaken, Mary decides to visit the only person she trusts, her husband, John Bowser, now a member of the 22nd Regiment of the Colored Troops.  Although their marriage has suffered because of her devotion to Miss ‘Bet, he knows her work is not finished and helps her forgive herself.  She hurries back to the Gray House, just in time for the departure of the Davis family and the triumphant entry of the Federal troops escorting President Lincoln.


“Now if you can spare a moment and don’t mind a stranger’s curiosity,” the President says when they are introduced,   “Tell me, what was it like to work for Jefferson Davis?”   And if you want to know what she told him, I suggest that you read this excellent book.  


Arlene Winkler is a freelance writer with an unabashed passion for the fine arts. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grandmother of five, she is dealing with her culture shock by studying the “War of Northern Aggression” and the role of women on both sides of the divide.  For an in-depth look at Elizabeth Van Lew, you can read her article for this magazine, at  

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker