The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Title: The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Author: Lois Leveen

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / Virginia / Slavery / Civil War / Spying / Underground Railroad / Quakers / Jefferson Davis)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (5/15/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Oh yes -- couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: The story of a Richmond woman, who goes from slave to free woman to spy, in this real life tale of Civil War espionage.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- again, I love a hist fic that doesn't feature the beheaded costumed woman, although I do sort of hate the giant quote on the right side.

I'm reminded of...: Margaret George

First line: Mama was always so busy.

Did... I become a walking 1860s-ish trivia machine?: YES. Honestly, anyone who made eye contact with me got a buttload of awesomeness gleaned from this novel -- so much fascinating stuff in this book!

Did... I love the 22 pages of extras in this edition?: YES. Annotated historical notes, a brief discussion guide with questions, a Q&A with the author that has photos of the people and places mentioned (pure gold!), as well as sample recipes from an 1830s cookbook. Awesome stuff.

Have... I been captivated by Leveen's contributions to The New York Times' series on the Civil War?: YES. The whole series, called 'Disunion', is amazing.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like great historical fiction -- this is up there with the best!

Why did I get this book?: The usual: the cover, the premise, that it was hist fic...what can I say, I'm easy?

Review: At 450 pages, this is a satisfying brick of a novel. Rich with ambiance, filled with artfully articulated characters, and centered squarely in an era and locale that is vibrant, shocking, captivating, and real, The Secrets of Mary Bowser represents what I love about a good historical novel.

Based in fact, this is the story of a woman's transition from slave to free woman, an already momentous experience that would fill a book alone; Mary Bowser, however, answers a calling greater than herself and works with the Underground Railroad before returning to the south as a slave to spy for the Union.  Placed in Jefferson Davis' household, Mary uses her intelligence and courage to send information to the Unionists, and she's a witness to some of the most traumatic events in U.S. history.

Leveen hits all the elements right in this one: she doesn't stint on details when it comes to people, places, food, and clothing, but the text doesn't read like an academic tome. Very little is known about Mary and her life, so Leveen has creative license to imagine how a freed slave ended up spying for the Union. What she presents felt authentic to me, exciting without being over-the-top, and very satisfying -- the kind of fiction that had my jaw on the floor (did that really happen?) and me gulping down pages eagerly. I particularly loved the end of this book; it has a neat, happy conclusion that fits the story, and is a sort of sly wink to the fact that Mary Bowser's story is so little known.

There are 22 pages of extras as well: annotated historical notes, a brief discussion guide with questions, a Q&A with the author that has photos of the people and places mentioned (perhaps my favorite part), as well as sample recipes from an 1830s cookbook. Definitely a great book club pick, this is also a lovely summertime chunkster.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Secrets of Mary Bowser to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 6/15.


  1. You had me at "I [became] a walking 1860s-ish trivia machine." I love books based on fact!

    This sounds like the perfect novel!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

    1. I'm going to at my next Trivial Pursuit, Cranium, or trivia bar night now! ;0)

  2. Oh, you are always reading the books that I want to be reading! I love the sound of this one and I love the fact that it's such a compelling and intriguing read. I must have a copy of this one, and will be off to check out the library website when it comes out. Great review today, Audra!

    1. Heather -- do, do get it -- it's so good! I think you'd love it!

  3. This book sounds so good! History, espionage, race, gender... it really has it all! I hope I get to read it soon- definitely entering your giveaway :-)

    1. YES -- so many fantastic themes. I've read one review that said it was too exhaustively researched which made my jaw drop -- I thought Leveen seamlessly integrated her research into a compelling story.

  4. This sounds like a great read! I'm looking forward to reading it.

  5. I stole this lovely from the take shelf at work. Can't wait to read it!

  6. This one sounds fascinating, and I agree with you about the cover! It does make a nice change.

    1. I'm telling you, you'll become a font of trivia you never knew you needed to know! ;)

  7. I can't wait to read The Secrets of Mary Bowser! I read Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein and loved it, yet this book approaches the Civil War Era from an entirely different perspective. Great review...keeping my fingers crossed! Thanks for the giveaway~
    Beth :-)

    1. Yes -- both books are marvelous but look at different facets of the Civil War -- this one was breathtakingly meaty without being overwhelming. So v impressed with it!!

  8. I've heard nothing but good things about this book, and I really want to expand my knowledge of the Civil War, so I'm going to have to get my hands on this book for sure!

  9. Oooh this one sounds good! And I love the cover! I will have to get my hands on it. And I love that there are some recipes - maybe a future weekend cooking when I get back to doing them?


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