The novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, while not historically accurate on many accounts, is a thrilling and incendiary (in a good way) story of a black woman Union spy in Richmond, Virginia. This book has it all and then some, when it comes to highlighting the racial prejudices and injustices that the black populations faced, both North and South.
The story begins with Mary, the daughter of a house servant and blacksmith slave in pre-Civil War Richmond. Born into slavery, she worked in the Van Lew household with her mother and had a special knack for remembering, verbatim, anything spoken. Uncommonly lenient and progressive with their slaves, the Van Lew mistresses taught Mary to read. In the book, she and her mother are freed by their owner, Miss Bet Van Lew. The only issue is that once a slave is free, they have a limited window of time to stay in the state of their former enslavement before they are pressed back into bondage. Mary and her mother would have to leave Virginia and her father. A way was made for Mary to attend a school in Philadelphia that would accept colored girls, but her mother elected to stay behind and wait for the day when her husband would be freed as well. Mary comes to the north, but realizes that prejudices are just as intense in Pennsylvania as they are in Virginia. I won’t ruin too much of the story, but she becomes involved with the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves make their way to freedom, endangering her life on more than a few occasions. Her efforts take her back to Virginia just before the outbreak of war. She witnesses the political and social changes within Richmond’s community as the Confederacy is established and struggles to maintain its independence from the Union. Bet Van Lew and Mary work together as Union spies against the Confederacy, which leads Mary to seek work in the Confederate White House, right under the nose of Jefferson and “Queen” Varina Davis.
Throughout the book, I was fascinated by the way the author wove in the details and landmark events in Mary’s narrative that would have sent ripples through the black community. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the various victories and losses during the war, John Brown’s raid upon Harper’s Ferry, and the fluctuating attitudes of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery characters (both historical and fictional). It brought little things to light that I hadn’t previously considered and incorporated many of the things I had known already about the slave laws. The novel itself is bold, honest, and doesn’t sugar-coat anything about the era and the harshness of reality for the slave and formerly enslaved populations. Many of them were disturbing, but I believe that’s a good thing. This novel has the capabilities to wake up the emotionally-detached reader to make them take a deeper look into those things that they would rather glaze over when it comes to historical research.
Now, I said before that this novel is not entirely historically accurate. There are many things that this novel gets wrong about the life of Mary Bowser. Her name, for instance, is not Mary Bowser, but Mary Jane Richards Denham. While she did marry a man named Wilson Bowser during the war, there is no indication through records that she took his surname. And the Van Lews didn’t send Mary to Philadelphia, but to Liberia with other blacks to make a community of their own outside of American society (this was a push by both abolitionists and pro-slavers). Though she did return to Virginia, she wasn’t the only black woman to help Bet Van Lew in her espionage. The author discloses these fallacies in an article that I’ll list below.
But the point of the novel isn’t to get her story right, nor to accurately depict her life as uniquely heroic. The novel was written to make the reader aware of the difficulties, the dangers, and the downright injustice inflicted upon the black race (free or slave) up to the end of the Civil War. And as any student of the war knows, the trouble didn’t end after the 13th Amendment. People like Mary Jane Richard Denham would have had to navigate the treacherous pitfalls of Reconstruction in post-bellum Southern society. This novel is designed to make the reader understand that there is so much more to learn about Civil War society and how it affects our perceptions of the past. In the words of the author, “We can best honor Mary Richards Denman by being unwaveringly honest about America in her era, and our own.”
Book: “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” by Lois Leveen
“She Was Born Into Slavery, Was a Spy and Is Celebrated as a Hero—But We’re Missing the Point of the ‘Mary Bowser’ Story” – June 19th, 2019, Lois Leveen – https://time.com/5609045/misremembering-mary-bowser/