This review originally ran in the June 1, 2012 edition of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.
When young Mary El and her mother are emancipated by their abolitionist owner in 1840s Richmond, they find themselves cast into a distrustful, uncertain state. They are free, but Virginia law requires them to relocate, and Mary El's father remains enslaved. Mary El's first taste of freedom, then, is bittersweet; though she goes on to Philadelphia for a proper education, she does so alone, her mother remaining behind with her father. The unfairness of this partial freedom infuriates Mary El and worsens as she faces the prejudices of the North and the increasing inaction of the abolitionists. As the country marches to war, Mary El soon finds herself heading back to Virginia to further the cause of the abolitionists from within the heart of the South.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen's debut novel, is based on the fascinating true story of a freed African American woman who voluntarily returned to Richmond during the Civil War to fight for emancipation. Through Mary El's complicated journey, Leveen gets to the core of the delicate issues surrounding slavery: the class system among the slaves, from "we in the house" to the cotton-pickers in the fields; racial prejudices; the emotional trials of those separated from their families; and the true definition of freedom. Leveen has clearly done her research: The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a rich, layered story of slavery, of the South and of what it means to fight for what we believe in, no matter the cost.
Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Secrets of Mary Bowser | Lois Leveen | Paperback | 496 pages | May 2012 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you