Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser
The Secrets of Mary Bowser
By: Lois Leveen
Published by William Morrow
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Genre: historical fiction
496 pages
Buy it on Amazon, IndieBound
 or Barnes and Noble
Source: kindly provided by publisher

My thoughts: 
Mary Bowser was born Mary El, a slave to one of the wealthiest families in Virginia. Mary El led an extraordinary life, having been freed at a young age and sent North to be educated, having the opportunity to help with the Underground Railroad, then later experiencing first-hand many significant events of the Civil War. Little is known about the real Mary Bowser, but Lois Leveen has woven the few hard facts we have into a phenomenal work of historical fiction.

 I am happy to report that this title was pleasantly thought-provoking without being tedious. Even thought historical fiction is not my favorite genre, the embedded history lessons here were told as seamless threads of the storyline. I found myself enjoying being reminded of events, places and people I studied in American History class.

The main character, Mary, will be easy to identify with for any woman who has ever endured hardships. Mary accepts difficulties as her obstacles to overcome, with little complaint. Being a practical and logical woman, she knows that complaint would be without reward- so instead of complaining, she often finds herself reacting to difficulties by finding a way to work toward ending the injustices she suffers. The story is, without question, driven by this trait of the main character, who comes to feel like an old friend.

I will be recommending this book for several friends who are in book clubs, since it would make such great material for group discussion. I will also be recommending it to anyone who is just looking for something new and fresh to pick up- because I need to find a friend who's read it, so I can discuss it as well! It deserves to be shared and savored.

A satisfying stand-alone, this book will quietly creep into my thoughts for several months to come. It is a rich, compelling read that is good for the brain as well as the soul.  I'll be sure to be on the lookout for Lois Leveen's other titles in the future.

Summary from GoodReads:

Based on the remarkable true story of a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a masterful debut by an exciting new novelist. Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women’s fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works likeCane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War. A powerful and unforgettable story of a woman who risked her own freedom to bring freedom to millions of others, The Secrets of Mary Bowser celebrates the courageous achievements of a little known but truly inspirational American heroine.


  1. I'll be adding this to my list of books to read. Great review! I hadn't seen this title before, but it sounds intriguing. :)

  2. I've heard nothing but good things about this book. I really must get my hands on a copy!

  3. Thanks for the great review. Readers can find an excerpt at

  4. Randi and Anna- yes, grab it! it's a great read.
    Lois, thanks so much for stopping by! You are very welcome, and thank you for writing a great book!


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