Portal to the Pages

A quick glimpse into my thoughts on various fiction

The Secrets of Mary Bowser – Lois Leveen

on December 8, 2012

Book cover of "The Secrets of Mary Bowser" The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Way back in April, I received a book voucher for my birthday. I managed to pick up a few books from it, including The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Somehow, I then managed to forget about it until relatively recently. How glad I am that I remembered to read it!

Based on a true story, the book centres on the character of Mary, who is born a slave in Richmond, Virginia in the 19th century. Mary and her mother work as slaves in the household of a wealthy white family, while her father works as a slave for a local blacksmith.
Through the actions of a very forward-thinking member of the household Mary is owned by, Mary is freed and sent to Philadelphia to be educated. She then gets involved with the movements of a local slavery abolition group. The type of work she is partakes in varies and escalates until she becomes involved in direct espionage. In the interest of preserving the story, I will leave my synopsis at this point, but rest assured that the story is much deeper than I have the opportunity to explore here.

I have to admit something about this book; I was addicted to reading it. The Secrets of Mary Bowser was one of those books that I would read at every appropriate opportunity (as well as some inappropriate opportunities). I read it on the bus, at the breakfast table, in college while waiting for people to turn up, before I went to sleep and when I woke up. I felt like I couldn’t put it down. The Secrets of Mary Bowser grabbed me from the first page and refused to let go.

This is a very honest portrayal of America, its relationship with slavery and the impact of the Civil War. This honesty may be helped by the fact that it is based on a true story. All of the main characters actually existed and the author has detailed the efforts she has gone to in order to make her story as close to the truth as is possible. The period portrayed in The Secrets of Mary Bowser is one which I have not read about before, bar a small section in a history book when I was in secondary school. As a result, I found the events around slavery extremely interesting. It truly boggles my mind that people could have thought they had a right to treat people so poorly, never mind actually owning people.

The racial issues are always present in the book without ever taking over the story and making the book tedious. Every event that occurs is set in context, both historically and socially. As someone who has almost no knowledge of the American Civil War, I got a little bit confused between the Confederates and the Unionists, along with the political issues around these two parties. However, this confusion never took from the story, which was so strong in its own right.

It is difficult to discuss such a broad book without ruining the story for those of you who haven’t read it yet. The book deals with so many emotional issues throughout the various events and environments it details. With the strong historical setting of the book, it could end up quite a dry history lesson but instead the author has chosen to focus on the emotional side of the story; that information which is missing from history books. Mary repeatedly deals with the idea of self-sacrifice to benefit the whole and its effect on her day-to-day life. She also highlights the changing role of women in society at the time, with regards to both education and social standing.

The only major qualm I had with the book actually involved the title of the book. Unfortunately, The Secrets of Mary Bowser features a character that begins the book as Mary Van Lew. This meant that when she starting interacting with a character whose surname was “Bowser”, I expected them to end up together. This was an unfortunate oversight that removed some of the suspense surrounding their relationship.

I have tried to review this book without giving away any of the key details that make it so involving. However, I would urge you to read it and not to worry too much about what you expect the story to be. If you enjoy an emotionally involving story, with genuine characters in a realistic, yet unbelievable, setting, then The Secrets of Mary Bowser is definitely for you. If this is not a something that appeals to you, I have to question whether you even like good books!

Sinead

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2 responses to “The Secrets of Mary Bowser – Lois Leveen

  1. Sinead, I’m so pleased the book stole your heart.

    Thanks for taking such care with this review. I’m also someone who HATES having any plot spoiled, and many reviewers have given away more than they should have with this novel. As for putting “Bowser” in the title . . . you’re right, of course, but one of our challenges was that if you use only the name Mary in a title, it can sound like either a religious book or a children’s book. I never thought of that until we got around to finalizing the title, which happened quite late in the process. Of course, there is a certain chain bookstore I won’t mention where the staff regularly files the book under B. Apparently they think it is BY Mary Bowser.

    Best regards,
    Lois

    • sineadfoy23 says:

      Hi Lois,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my review – and to comment on it!

      I completely understand why you didn’t just use “Mary” in the title. I was trying to think of a way around it myself and was coming up blank.

      I can’t believe that such an obvious mistake is made in sorting a book in an actual bookshop! That’s ridiculous!

      Thanks,
      Sinead

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