Imagine its 1865 and you are an African American woman and a slave in the Confederate White House. Imagine you are also a spy relaying intelligence to the Union and you are about to be caught. This was the life led by Mary Bowser, a real woman who lived in Virgina during the Civil War, and the inspiration behind Lois Leveen’s historical novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser.
On January 28, 2013, Leveen, an award-winning author and contributor to The New York Times, spoke to DePaul students about both the true and imagined details of Mary Bowser’s life. By weaving historical facts, intensive research, and a captivating narrative, Leveen wrote The Secrets of Mary Bowser as a way to relay the stories of the Civil War that are often ignored. Though Leveen’s novel is fictional, she said many of its scenes draw on historical accounts and events involving real people.
Leveen first came across a few paragraphs of Bowser’s history in A Shining Thread of Hope by Darlene Clark Hine. Leveen said she was struck by Bowser’s bravery in challenging race and gender stereotypes, and how little was known about this “awesome woman.”
In her lecture, Leveen explained the few facts known about Bowser. She was born in Richmond, VA in 1846, and was a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family. Though unusual for the time, Bowser was also an educated woman who could read and write. These skills allowed Bowser to spy on President Jefferson Davis as she posed as a slave in the Southern White House.
Few additional details are known about the extraordinary Bowser, but through an imagined first-person narrative, Leveen intertwines Bowser’s story with themes of injustice, courage, and friendship, during one of the darkest times in US history. Leveen said that though she enjoyed writing The Secrets of Mary Bowser, her favorite part of the process was imagining “the thoughts, motivations, and daily actions of the characters,” especially Bowser, who Leveen considers to be an American hero.
For more information on Lois Leveen and her novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, visit www.loisleveen.com.