Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Unravel The Secrets of Mary Bowser with Lois Leveen
There were a number of behind the scenes players that helped to end the Civil War in favor of the North and those who wanted to end slavery but not all of them have been recognized by history. In Lois Leveen's debut novel,The Secrets of Mary Bowser,one of those courageous women is finally given her due.
Mary was the daughter of enslaved parents,one of whom belonged to the prominent Van Lew family in Richmond,Virginia. The daughter of that house, Elizabeth Van Lew,aka Bet,was an active advocate for the abolitionist movement and saw Mary's intellectual potential at a young age.
Before she even learned to read,Mary was able to memorize entire conversations and repeat anything read aloud in her presence word for word. It was a talent that she had to be taught to conceal as any indication of advanced knowledge in a slave would place all of them in jeopardy.
When Bet was old enough to free her family slaves,she also arranged for Mary to receive an education in Philadelphia. Her mother and father weren't able to join her,due to Mary's father being owned by a vicious man who refused to let him leave his service at any price. As nervous as she was about leaving all that she knew behind,Mary was determined to live up to her mother's notion that destiny had special plans for her.
After getting used to living on her own,Mary flourished in Philadelphia and made good friends with people like Hattie,the youngest child of an undertaker whose shop was a way station for the Underground Railroad and Zinnie Moore,a Quaker woman who devoted herself to ending slavery,even while some of her church members weren't very welcoming to African Americans.
Although she was able to make a good life for herself in a free state,Mary still ran into prejudice from both blacks and whites that disheartened her,not to mention missing her parents who were still miles apart from her. Eventually,she returned to Virginia,partly because she wanted to make a contribution towards gaining freedom for her people. Bet Van Lew was instrumental in that department,as she brought Mary into the spy network that she was a member of:
With the Civil War fully underway,Mary's keen deciphering skills were well employed,first as a go-between for Union soldiers imprisoned nearby and then later as a maid in the household of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Working for temperamental "First Lady" Varina Davis was a daily trial by fire but the intelligence gathered from overheard conversations and documents left on top of Davis' office desk made such burdens easier to bear.
Risk was risk,however,and Mary came close to it time and time again. Still,she persevered as more than her life was on the line. Her determination grew stronger when her husband David was able to enlist and join the fight for freedom on the battlefield. Even as Mary was desperate to see David safe and sound again,she knew that the best way to help him and others in bondage was to stay in the spy game:
The Secrets of Mary Bowser may sound like a history lesson,but it's much more than that. It's a living,breathing portrait of a woman struggling to find her place in a world that oppresses her for many reasons and manages to mark her own significant mark on it. Since most of the facts about Mary are unknown to the official history of the time period,Leveen resorts to her extensive research and inventive imagination to create a plausible as well as entertaining version of the story of this exceptional woman's life and times.
I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of this wonderful book,courtesy of Library Thing,and for fans of historical fiction with a feminine focus,The Secrets of Mary Bowser is the absolute must-read of the season.
The novel is set to be released next month and I'll be featuring it in my May/June book preview next week. However,I urge you not to hesitate in reserving your copy as soon as may be. This touching tale of triumph and hope should be part of any well stocked library,public or private:
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