“At 450 pages, this is a satisfying brick of a novel. Rich with ambiance, filled with artfully articulated characters, and centered squarely in an era and locale that is vibrant, shocking, captivating, and real, The Secrets of Mary Bowser represents what I love about a good historical novel.
Based in fact, this is the story of a woman's transition from slave to free woman, an already momentous experience that would fill a book alone; Mary Bowser, however, answers a calling greater than herself and works with the Underground Railroad before returning to the south as a slave to spy for the Union. Placed in Jefferson Davis' household, Mary uses her intelligence and courage to send information to the Unionists, and she's a witness to some of the most traumatic events in U.S. history.
Leveen hits all the elements right in this one: she doesn't stint on details when it comes to people, places, food, and clothing, but the text doesn't read like an academic tome. Very little is known about Mary and her life, so Leveen has creative license to imagine how a freed slave ended up spying for the Union. What she presents felt authentic to me, exciting without being over-the-top, and very satisfying -- the kind of fiction that had my jaw on the floor (did that really happen?) and me gulping down pages eagerly. I particularly loved the end of this book; it has a neat, happy conclusion that fits the story, and is a sort of sly wink to the fact that Mary Bowser's story is so little known.
There are 22 pages of extras as well: annotated historical notes, a brief discussion guide with questions, a Q&A with the author that has photos of the people and places mentioned (perhaps my favorite part), as well as sample recipes from an 1830s cookbook. Definitely a great book club pick, this is also a lovely summertime chunkster.”