The Secrets of Mary Bowser

by Lois Leveen

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Mary Bowser, who inspired The Secrets of Mary Bowser, was a freed slave educated in the North who returned to Richmond, Virginia, shortly before the Civil War broke out, and posed as a slave to spy for the Union. History records far more about her former mistress, Elizabeth "Bet" Van Lew, who arranged to free Mary, than it does about Mary herself. We do know that Mary worked in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and that her phenomenal memory allowed her to recall, word-for-word, documents she saw on Davis's desk.

While the novel presents some hair-raisingly suspenseful episodes, it is essentially a novel of character, beginning while Mary, the narrator, is a child and slave in Bet's family home, and portraying the evolving relationship between Mary and Bet. Unlike Mary, Bet does not win and hold readers' affection, but the contradictions in her nature are so interesting that, for some, she may steal the show. "Miss Bet was so contrary she even declared she couldn't abide slavery.... But such proclamations didn't make her much of a favorite among her servants. 'She needs her chamber pot emptied just as often as the rest of them,' Mama would mutter...." If Bet holds admirable convictions, she can be as tone-deaf as any slaveowner to the needs and feelings of her fellow humans. Mary is as mistrustful as she is grateful to Bet, her gratitude tempered by Bet's overbearing habit of command, as well as by the virulent prejudice which sours her experience of freedom in Philadelphia.

In some scenes, Mary's narration captures her sensory and emotional experiences strongly enough to evoke them in readers; more often, the novel has a cerebral quality which brings a sense of understanding rather than the emotions themselves. In either mode, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a unique and fascinating novel, unsparing in portraying the moral conundrums facing both white and black in the American South before and during the Civil War. (2012, 453 pages, plus a Reader's Guide and a Historical Note)

More about The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other novels about slavery in nineteenth-century America:

Miss Lizzie's War: The Double Life of Southern Belle Spy Elizabeth Van Lew by Rosemary Agonito (2012), a novel about Elizabeth Van Lew. More info

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003), about a family of black slaveowners in early nineteenth-century Virginia. More info

Oxherding Tale by Charles Richard Johnson (1983), a bawdy, humorous literary novel about nineteenth century relations between black and white Americans. More info

Nonfiction about Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser:

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy by Elizabeth Varon (2003). More info

A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of 'Crazy Bet' Van Lew edited by David Ryan (1996). More info


A Black Spy in the Confederate White House, a nonfiction article about Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen for The New York Times "Opinionator."

Back to Novels of Nineteenth Century America

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