Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Secrets of Mary Bowser - Lois Leveen

It's the middle of the nineteenth century in Richmond, Virginia, and together with her mother Minnie, Mary is working for the Van Leer family. They are both slaves, as is Mary's father Lewis. When Bet Van Leer, the daughter within the family, who has a relatively enlightened outlook, buys and frees Mary and Minnie, Bet supports Mary in pursuing her studies in Philadelphia, within a free state. Mary eventually returns to Virginia, effectively choosing to return to slavery, as she becomes a spy for the Union, spying on Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

This is an intelligent and very moving piece of historical fiction, and an impressive debut novel. The author is evidently passionate about the story, has thoroughly researched the subject matter, and then added to the facts with her own imaginings to give us a rounded interpretation of Mary's life. A lot of the early part of the book is focussed on the young Mary, her years serving the Van Leer's, and also it depicts in detail her time studying in Philadelphia, how she lives there, the friendships she makes, and what she learns. She is a keen student, and discovers she has a real hunger to learn. As she experiences more of life and more of the world as a free person, she still comes up against many inequities, and realises that, although she has more freedom than before, 'still it wasn't what freedom ought to be.' Through the actions and events in the life of just this one person, the author at the same time gives us an insight into what was happening in the whole country with regard to slavery. 

'The Secrets of Mary Bowser' offers reading groups much to discuss and debate along the themes of slavery, segregation, secession and the general historical background to the novel - there is so much to think about after reading this book.


Thank you to newbooks magazine for sending me a proof copy of this novel to read and give an honest review.

Published by Hodder on 24th May 2012.

You can visit the author's website here.


  1. Wow! A definite add to my book list. Will have to watch for it. I loved reading that the author had great passion for the story. I think that helps the reader feel connected to the story. Thanks for the great review :)

  2. You're certainly reading some good books lately! Added this one to my wishlist, will look out for it in May.

  3. This sounds like a lovely read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Link to author site


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