Thoughts on: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

May 16, 2012
Article first published asBook Review:The Secrets of Mary Bowserby Lois Leveenon Blogcritics.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a historical fiction novel taking place before and during the American Civil War. Very little is known about Mary Bowser, a free slave who went back into Virginia to spy for the Union.

The pub­lisher is giv­ing away one copy of this book—use the form at the end of the post to enter.

  • 496 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062107909

Thoughts on: The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

My rating for The Secrets of Mary Bowser5

Buy this book inpaperor inelec­tronicfor­mat

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen (Website | Twitter| Facebook) is an interesting book about an interesting time. There is very little known about Mary Bowser, a free slave who went back to spy for the Union at Jefferson Davis’ house during the Civil War.

Very little is known about Mary Bowser (even though her name as a spy was Ellen Bond, which didn’t make it into this book), so there are many liberties taken with the character. This could be good or bad and could easily backfire at the author, however I think this time it worked and the author does a fine job not only with the characterization, but also describing the daily lives of free blacks during the era.

The first half of the book takes place before the war starts, the second half, where Bowser goes to work for Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is fascinating. The other historical characters in the book, such as Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent abolitionist and Bowser’s former owner who freed her, are also well written and interesting.

Mary Bowser
Picture thought to be of Mary Bowser

Despite the era and material, I didn’t find the story too dark even though there are elements of violence. Ms. Leveen wrote her main characters as uplifting individuals, living hard lives during hard times.

It is difficult to write historical fiction novels, as there are many people (myself included) who will nitpick to no end, however, I do understand that historical fiction is a subgenre of fiction, not history. I would certainly suggest reading the excellent material in the back of the book where Ms. Leveen makes clear what is historically accurate, what is fictional and some more background.

Update 21 June, 2012:
Lois Leveen’s article in the New York Times about Mary Bowser is published: A Black Spy in the Confederate White House

So tell me, do you like to read the author’s note before reading the book?

Based on a true story, Mary has been a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, VA. Bet Van Lew, the daughter and abolitionist, frees Mary and sends her to school in Philadelphia.

When a war seems imminent, Mary returns to Virginia, defying the law, to care for her ailing father. Posing as a slave in the Confederate White House, Mary puts her photographic memory to good use.

Buy this book inpaperor inelec­tronicfor­mat


  • Give­away ends: May 23, 2012

  • US/Canada Ship­ping Addresses Only

  • No PO Boxes

  • Win­ners will have 24 hours to write back with their address, oth­er­wise an alter­nate win­ner will be picked

Congratulations: enamoredsoul@

TLC Book Tour for The Secrets of Mary Bowser:

Tuesday, May 15th: Bookworm’s Dinner
Wednesday, May 16th: Man of La Book
Thursday, May 17th: A Cozy Reader’s Corner
Monday, May 21st: Unabridged Chick Wednesday,
May 23rd: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, May 24th: Life In Review
Friday, May 25th:“That’s Swell!”
Monday, May 28th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, May 29th: Just Joanna
Wednesday, May 30th: Book Journey

Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer: I got this book for free fromTLC Book Tours

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BOOK BLOGGERS – Have you read The Secrets of Mary Bowser? If so link up your review below:

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  • AmyMay 16, 2012 at 8:38 am

    This sounds like a really interesting book. Even though there isn’t a lot of information available about Mary Bowser, I think it’s fantastic the author wrote about the heroic and inspiring things Mary did during the war. Bringing attention to Mary and her actions is a terrific tribute to an amazing woman. I look forward to reading this book at some point.
    Thank you for hosting this giveaway!

  • Lois LeveenMay 16, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Thanks for taking the time to review THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER and host a giveaway. I appreciate your comments about the line I’ve chosen to walk in writing historical fiction. I’m trained as a researcher, and I’m always as careful as I can be to avoid anachronisms and weave the facts into an engaging story. As for “Ellen Bond,” although the claim that Bowser used the name Ellen Bond–and that she set fire to the Confederate White House–is frequently repeated, I’ve never found any well-cited source suggesting this is true. Bowser did use pseudonyms at various points, but there’s no documentation that Ellen Bond was one of them.

    The New York Times will be running a piece soon that I’ve written about some of Bowser’s pseudonyms, and about why so little is known about her. It involves new research, including a diary entry and a letter documenting Bowser’s postwar meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe. If you’re interested, I can post a link here when it goes live on the New York Times website . . . sounds like you’re a history geek like me and will want to know more.

    • Zohar - Man of la BookMay 16, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Thanks for the comment Ms. Leveen, I am absolutely a history geek 🙂

      Also, thanks for the clarification on Ellen Bond, if you couldn’t find any well cited sources I have to say you made the right call (I just think it’s a great pseudonym for a Civil War spy – Bond, Ellen Bond.

      Congratulations on a wonderful book and am looking forward to the NYT piece.

  • TaylorMay 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Hi! My email is and I just started a book blog at Thanks!

  • TaylorMay 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Hi there- I tried to join the Facebook group about book giveaways but I’m not sure how to do so? Thanks!

  • Jen LeMay 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm
  • RachelMay 16, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks for the giveaway – I love historical fiction!

  • JonathanMay 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Personally, I don’t mind a few liberties taken with my historical fiction. As long as the surrounding setting is in sync with the historical record (no anachronisms or blatant historical falsehoods), I’m generally OK with it. I mean, if we wanted to read unembellished history, we’d read a history book, right?

    The Secrets of Mary Bowser sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Zohar - Man of la BookMay 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      I don’t mind a few liberties either, it’s when the timeline doesn’t work that drives me nuts.

  • C.E. HartMay 17, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Interesting book and review. I’ve never heard of her. 😉 Thanks for the giveaway, Zohar.

    • Zohar - Man of la BookMay 17, 2012 at 9:47 pm

      Thanks for the comment C.E. – I believe this is Ms. Leveen’s first book (I think).

  • Hira Hasnain (Enamored Soul)May 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I love how many historical books you choose to read and review. I’ve always been interested in that era, and find it so funny that I was just checking this book out on Kobo this morning, and I open my email to find out that you’re having a giveaway for it.

    I always choose to read the author’s note, because I think it gives us great insight into the mind frame in which the author chose to write his/her narrative and characters. I think it also allows us to find out more about the origins of the story and its characters.

    Personally, I don’t mind a few liberties being taken, in terms of historical facts, as long as the author makes sure to state it, and also, if it is a FICTION novel. Most historical fiction novels embellish the truth just a little bit, in order to aid the story being told.

    This sounds like a FANTASTIC book, and I’d love for a chance to read it! 🙂

    Name: Hira Hasnain
    Email: Enamoredsoul(at)gmail(dot)com

    • Zohar - Man of la BookMay 17, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Thanks for the great comment Hira. I also read the author’s note first, it helps me know what to expect and what to keep in mind.

  • VesperMay 17, 2012 at 6:11 pm
  • Heather J. @ TLC Book ToursMay 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I so appreciate when authors include historical notes to clarify what is factual and what they have embellished for the story – that information greatly enhances my appreciation of any historical novel, so I’m glad to see it included here.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  • Anita YanceyMay 21, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Thanks so much for having this giveaway. Here is my email.

  • Courtney WyantMay 22, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Thanks so much for the great giveaway. Lovely cover and the book trailer was intriguing!

    – Courtney Wyant @ Courtney’s Book Nook

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