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Title: The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Author: Lois Leveen
This book is set in America between 1844 to 1865 and is based on the real -life story of Mary Bowser. Mary and her mother are slaves in the household of the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. Mary is a bright girl with a photographic memory who loves books and reading, something forbidden to slaves, but Elizabeth Van Lew (Bet), the daughter of the household takes an interest in Mary and encourages her by lending books from her father’s library. Bet Van Lew is against slavery and later gives Mary her freedom and escorts Mary to Philadelphia in the North, where she pays for her to be educated. Despite the freedoms given to Mary in Philadelphia she still encounters prejudice and realises that although she has been given her liberty, it is not quite what she imagined it to be. During her time in Philadelphia she befriends Hattie whose father is an undertaker and becomes involved with the underground railroad in which coffins are used to help slaves escape to free states.
As the Civil War looms, Mary takes the decision to return to Virginia and return to slavery so that she can pose as an illiterate slave and spy for the Union. She secures a role in the house of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and takes many risks to pass on information to the North. Although there is suspicion that there is a spy in the household, Mary continues to get away with it, because she is deemed to be an illiterate and ignorant slave.
This is a well written and enjoyable piece of historical fiction. It gives a real insight into the lives of slaves and what is happening with regard to slavery and abolition before and during the time of the American Civil War. Despite there being very little written information about Mary, the author manages to bring her character and the lives of the people she is involved with to life. My knowledge of the American Civil War is limited but it certainly made me want to find out more and to look up information about historical events and the people in the story. Mary’s life is intertwined with that of her former owner Elizabeth Van Lew who as an abolitionist operated an extensive spy ring on behalf of the Union. Although she is involved with Mary throughout the whole book, the emphasis is more on Mary’s story as a slave living in mid 19th century America.