by Lois Leveen
A slave to one of the wealthiest families in Richmond, Virginia, young Mary's childhood is spent working in the house of her owners. She's a clever girl, with a perfect memory; Mary needs only to hear a conversation once and she can repeat it later, word for word. It makes her owners nervous, but their oddball, outspoken daughter Bet Van Lew decides that such intelligence should be cultivated. She frees Mary and her mother so that Mary can go to North to pursue an education. Bet's generosity costs Mary dearly; her father remains the slave pf a blacksmith, and her mother will not leave him, so the family is split apart as the daughter heads to Philadelphia. Although terribly lonely, Mary soon establishes herself in the North, where she witnesses both the joys of freedom and the hateful racism whites feel towards free blacks. As she grows up, she uncovers a local branch of the Underground Railroad, and as the nation edges closer to war Mary becomes more and more involved with helping slaves escape. Mary's talents are noticed, and her unique background gives her an opportunity to take on a dangerous but important assignment: return to Richmond as a spy posing as a slave in order to infiltrate the house of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.
Mary was a real Civil War spy, which made the story all the more fascinating. Very little is known of her life beyond the usual administrative records: birth, marriage date, etc. She is mentioned a few times in the diary of Bet Van Lew, a truly colorful woman who gathered intelligence for the North throughout the Civil War. This book really celebrates the difference that two strong, passionate women can make, even when trapped within the limitations imposed by their sex and class
One of the most interesting observations Mary makes is the realization that the paternalism of the South has, in a way, protected blacks like herself from the more blatant racism of whites who feel threatened by freed blacks. When slaves are property, they must be taken care of, just as one cares for a beloved horse or an expensive piece of machinery. If a drunken white man kills a slave, he is answerable to the slave's owner – a powerful deterrent. Freed slaves, on the other hand, lose that protection. If a resentful white believes he lost his job because some negro will work it for cheaper, and he seeks revenge...well, there's no one will protecting the blacks. Even as she fights for the freedom of her people, Mary worries that the anger in the South over losing the war will cost them far more than slavery did. Yet in spite of her fears, she remains dedicated to the cause.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser made me think about slavery in a new way – yes, it was/is a terrible institution, but not every slaveowner was a horrible person, and in some cases it provided something of a safety net since a slave was assured of some sort of shelter and food every night. Once the blacks were freed and that guarantee was taken away, well...it wasn't pretty. I'm not saying slavery was justified, not at all! I just never really considered it from this angle before.
I loved this book. The story moves quickly with rich descriptions to bring mid-19th century America to life. Through the eyes of Mary, we visit the sparkling mansions of Richmond and the devastating poverty of free blacks, who struggle daily since they lack the education for anything but the most menial of jobs. The book may be 450 pages long, with an additional 20 pages of supplemental material, but it just flies by. The Secrets of Mary Bowser, without a doubt, is one of the best books I've read this year.
5 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Secrets of Mary Bowser, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir
2010: Writer's Block: Open Book Test
2009: The King's Rose by Alisa Libby
2008: Want a job? Librarything.com seeks employees.