Reader’s Forum–Melissa Meyer and Ramon Pena

If you have not started reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, perhaps the Memorial Day Weekend gives you an opportunity to take this rich and rewarding journey.

Below are comments from two Politics for the People members who have just started reading the book.

MELISSA MEYER

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I’ve listened on audio tape to a very small piece of Lois Leveen’s book and her depiction of the life and work of Mary Bowser.

The beauty of Ms. Leveen’s  prose about an ordinary Sunday juxtaposed against the horror and inhumanity of slavery….  To read about the ordinary lives of African Americans loving each other, is a joy…. even as their joyous times are cut short under the control of their slave masters. Ms. Leveen takes you into a moment of history without teaching, but inviting you in.  Thank you!

Melissa Meyer is the Coordinator of International Programs at the East Side Institute in New York City.

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RAMON PENA

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I am enjoying this book although still halfway through.

Two things that I love about Mary is that she always listened as a child. By listening she was becoming educated to the politics of that time. She even continued doing this as an adult.

I also loved her relationship with her father. He loved her dearly and she loved him back. The book is full of these father daughter moments. Thanks Lois Leveen for giving the readers a different kind of story about slavery.

Ramon Pena is a long time independent activist and lives in New Jersey.

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Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk CoverHappy Memorial Day Reading

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Reader’s Forum — Steve Hough

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I enjoyed reading Lois Leveen’s historical novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. While being based on a true life figure, Mary’s story is as incredible as if it had been total fiction. As I had no knowledge of Mary Bowser before, the book affected me on several levels beyond the enjoyment of reading a well-crafted novel.

Much of what has been written about the Civil War chronicles events from a military perspective, but not being a student of such things, I am not surprised I had never heard of Mary Bowser. However, for those who do study military campaigns, intelligence gathering would be an integral part of the story. A former slave, having been freed and educated in Philadelphia, voluntarily returning to Richmond, pretending to be a slave is remarkable. To then become a servant and spy in the Confederate White House is unimaginable. But then, I also had never heard of Katherine Johnson before the movie Hidden Figures was released.

Another surprise was how my visualization of slavery and the antebellum South had been limited to atrocities occurring in the bowels of slave ships, the brutality of Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverplantation life, and the perils faced by those who attempted to escape and by those who aided them. Mary’s experience as an urban house slave of a well-to-do merchant may have been vastly different than those on plantations, but her bondage was nonetheless cruel and inhumane.

I live in the South. I first moved from Southwest Missouri to Florida as a teenager after my parents divorced. That was 1968.  I only lived here for two and a half years before returning to Missouri to finish high school. After joining the Army and living abroad, then moving to California for a few years, I returned in 1987. Much has changed since 1968, but much has remained the same.

Just as Mary experienced segregation and discrimination as a free young lady in Philadelphia, vestiges of the past still afflict many today. Perhaps most prominently, the Jim Crow era manifested the lingering toxic attitudes displayed by whites in the South, however many people of color all across the country are adversely affected by our shared history and an institution abolished long ago.

While we can point to a plethora of anecdotal evidence on a daily basis, comparative data confirms this. Everything from disparities in wealth, quality of education, employment opportunities, and incarceration rates, points to an ongoing struggle for true equality. Our economic and political model imposes arbitrary limits on the resources available across the broad spectrum of society, and a pecking order exists within the context of competition favoring some more than others. While the struggle is not exclusive to communities of color, one cannot help but believe our history plays a role in amplifying the disparities.

That history, and its impact, is still a point of contention and continued debate. From a call for reparations to simply seeking to remove monuments to the Confederacy from prominent public spaces, the ghosts of our past still haunt us.

Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.

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Reader’s Forum—Steve Guarin

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

A review by Steve Guarin

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I, and most everybody else, never heard of Mary Bowser. I never learned of her in school. In fact I was well into adulthood before I even learned of the name and all I knew of her, was that she had something to do with spying on the Confederates. It wasn’t until I read the book about Mary, written by Lois Leveen that Mary Bowser became a person. Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk CoverShe was a rarity among black people due to the fact that she was well educated. She was a rarity among all people. She did what she saw as right even though it was hard, even dangerous.

There are many scenes of danger, but the one that sticks with me, is when Mary killed a man. This man was a real danger to Mary and the daughter of her former owner, Elizabeth Van Lew. This man caused Mary to act in an unusual and desperate manner. Mary was able to quietly come up in back of him and smash his head in with rock. At this point the fear and rage that came with living under the terrible conditions of slavery caused her to go berserk. She hit the man over and over, and though I was surprised I also felt that Mary was justified.

Ms. Leveen created Mary Bowser with a full story to tell. Unfortunately written history wanted to do without Mary Bowser. The chroniclers of doings and goings on in our yesteryear’s, especially during the 1800s, left very spotty reports about the black man’s or women’s doings. In a very important part of the story, Mary was serving, literally, in the capital of the Confederacy as the (slave) servant of the President of the united secessionist states. Was this so? Because I had been taught nothing about Mary, I had to look it up. Thank God that in this age we have Google, for if we didn’t I still wouldn’t know the she really did work in Jefferson Davis’ house.

I unreservedly recommend this book.  It is a very creative story about the happenings during the most interesting time in this country’s history. Action, adventure, a little romance, and morality banging their heads together.

Steve Guarin lives in the Bronx.  He is retired and an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

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Reader’s Forum — Harry Kresky

Lois Leveen’s historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, tells the inspiring story of a young woman born into slavery in Richmond VA who became a spy for the Union with access to the papers and conversations of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The book portrays many aspects of America before and during the civil war: the cruelty of slavery; the courage of African-Americans who fought against it; the conflicted P1100330relationship between African-Americans (slave and free) active in the struggle and white abolitionists; the agonizingly slow, but inexorable defeat of the Confederacy.

It is also a story about human development. Mary Bowser’s parents, forced to live apart as slaves with different masters, instilled in their daughter a determination to be free, the importance of focusing and working towards that goal, and the need to become worldlier.  She had the good fortune to be bought and freed by an anti-slavery member of the family that owned her and, at her sponsor’s urging (and with the full support of her parents), moved to Philadelphia where she was able to study at a school for freed African-Americans.  And, of course, that meant leaving her parents behind in Richmond.

Mary Bowser proved to be the top student in her class, an avid learner outside of school, and an astute judge of character and analyst of social and political dynamics.  Whether her accomplishments are attributed to genetics, opportunity or luck (likely all of them), Bowser’s story demonstrates the importance of being able to live in a more cosmopolitan environment and interact with many different kinds of people, white and black, kind and not so kind.

And the responsibility on all of us to relate to people as who they can become.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters. He is also a poet (poems for friends).

 

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Mary Bowser’s Photo?

While reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I wondered if there was a picture of Mary Bowser. It was during the Civil War that photography made its way much more deeply into American life and culture. Well, there is a photo of Mary Bowser, BUT…  Read Lois Leveen’s article from The Atlantic to find out about the photo and mystery unfurled.

The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me

A story of a mistaken identity reveals a lot about the history of black women in America, the challenges of understanding the past, and who we are today.

By: Lois Leveen                                                                                              June 27, 2013

 

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It’s a blurry image. But in some ways that makes it the perfect portrait of Mary Bowser, an African American woman who became a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. What better representation of a spy who hid in plain sight than a photograph whose subject stares straight at the viewer yet whose features remain largely indecipherable? Small wonder the photograph has been circulated by NPR, Wikipedia, libraries, history projects, and in my book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser. There’s only one problem: The woman in the photograph was no Union spy. How did we get it so wrong?

Mary Bowser left behind a sparse historical trail. One early clue comes from a 1900, Richmond, Virginia, newspaper story about a white Union spy named Elizabeth Van Lew. In the story, the reporter included the tantalizing detail that before the war, Van Lew freed one of her family’s slaves and sent her North to be educated. The young woman later returned to Richmond and was placed in the Confederate White House as part of Van Lew’s spy ring. Van Lew’s own Civil War-era diary describes her reliance on an African American referred to only as Mary, who was a key source for Van Lew’s intelligence network. Nearly half a century after the war, Van Lew’s niece identified the black woman as Mary Bowser, a revelation included in a June 1911 article in Harper’s Monthly.

Numerous books and articles repeated the tale of Bowser’s espionage, often embellished and without any verifiable sources. The advent of the Internet made it especially easy for the story to circulate, and a growing interest in black history and women’s history provided a steady audience for pieces about Bowser. Online pieces about Bowser could easily include an illustration — if one could be found.

The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women’s history and black history, can blind us to how much about the past remains unknowable.

 

As far as I can determine, the photograph began circulating in 2002, when Morning Edition ran a story about Bowser, and NPR included the photograph on their website, with a caption crediting it to “James A. Chambers, U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence.” A radio network might seem an unlikely venue for circulating a photograph, but NPR webpages are rife with images supporting each radio story, a fact that exemplifies the extent to which the Internet has made accessing and distributing visual content not only easy but seemingly necessary. (Try to find a popular, public-facing web page without any visuals.) 

When my publisher, HarperCollins, asked for images to include in my novel, I dutifully sent the picture purportedly of Bowser. With photographs of Van Lew, Jefferson Davis, and other Civil War figures easy to find, it seemed only fair to feature a picture of Bowser herself. Cautiously, I captioned the image as “rumored to be of Mary Bowser.” Ultimately, I couldn’t resist the urge to show what Bowser looked like, even though elements of the photograph had always troubled me.

As historian and expert on internet hoaxes T. Mills Kelly warns, we should be skeptical about any Internet source that fills a gap in the historical record too neatly. What was the likelihood that a woman for whom we have no birth or death dates, who used several aliases throughout her life, and who lived during the earliest decades of photography, happened to leave a clearly documented studio portrait?

 

My doubts about the image grew when I unearthed several post-war sources corroborating Bowser’s participation in the Richmond espionage ring. One of these documents indicates that in June of 1867, the slave-turned-spy, then using the surname Garvin, left the U.S. for the West Indies; after that date, she disappears from the historical record. But both the dress the figure in the photograph wears and the chair next to which she stands appear to be from a much later period. Could the only surviving portrait of Bowser really have been taken years, perhaps decades, after the woman herself otherwise seems to have vanished?

Diligence, doubt, and dumb luck — the great triumvirate of historical research — finally led me to an answer. In 2011, I’d contacted both NPR librarian Kee Malesky and the military office listed in NPR’s original caption for the photograph, but neither could provide any information about the image. Despite this seeming dead end, I kept seeking the original, and in January of 2013, I mentioned the mysterious provenance of the photograph to Paul Grasmehr, reference coordinator at the Pritzker Military Library. He put me in touch with Lori S. Tagg, command historian for the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, which inducted Bowser in 1995. Tagg searched their records and determined that “the Bowser photo most likely came from … the Virginia State Library Pictures Collection.”

This lead didn’t initially seem promising. Now known as the Library of Virginia, this institution contains no reference in its catalog to an image of Bowser. But when I contacted Dana Puga in their Prints and Photographs Collection, she confirmed that the famed photograph was indeed on file in the library, “in the form of a cabinet card from the Petersburg Studio [of] C. R. Rees.”

Quick research (on the Internet, I confess!) revealed that C. R. Rees took his first picture — a daguerreotype — around 1850. Cabinet cards began to be produced in the 1860s, suggesting a slim possibility that Mary Bowser might have posed for one. But C.R. Rees didn’t open a studio in Petersburg, Virginia, until around 1880, making it unlikely any image captured there was of my spy. Luckily, a few months later a speaking engagement at the Museum of the Confederacy brought me to Richmond, Virginia, where I could at last view the elusive original.

 

This is the moment a historian lives for — cradling a rare primary source in hand. And it was just as informative as I’d hoped. On the back of the cabinet card was written the name Mary Bowser, and the name was repeated on the attached mailing envelope, along with a street address in Petersburg.

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Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia

So could this be my spy after all? The answer became clear when I turned the cabinet card over:

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Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia

There, staring straight at the camera, was Mary Bowser, her features easily recognizable — unlike the blurry version found online. Just as clear was the date the image was created: 1900. A better match for the clothing and furniture, but not for the spy, who by the turn into the twentieth century would have been about sixty years old. The image is of Mary Bowser … just not the Mary Bowser we’ve been claiming her to be.Having my suspicions about the photograph’s authenticity confirmed left me more frustrated than vindicated. It doesn’t take any advanced training to look at a clearly dated artifact and ascertain whether it could reasonably relate to a figure whose active moment in history occurred decades earlier. Whoever cropped the image to the form in which it recurs online removed a critical piece of historical evidence. But the ease with which NPR, US Army Intelligence, and I have all participated in the mistaken circulation of this image also reveals how much our expectations of history are products of the way we live in the 21st century.

As a current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminds us, the Civil War was more or less contemporaneous with the advent of photography, resulting in an unprecedentedly visual experience of the conflict, even for Americans who never ventured anywhere near a battlefield. The subsequent century and a half of technological advances in capturing and reproducing images have so substantially increased our expectation — our demand — for reliable, historic visual sources that it can be difficult for us to understand how ahistoric this desire is. But in Mary Bowser’s own era, individuals didn’t have our expectations of visual certainty. They were far less likely to know what someone, even a public figure, looked like, as contemporary descriptions of Bowser reveal.

A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle who attended a lecture the former spy gave in September of 1865 described her as so “strongly resembling” the prominent abolitionist speaker Anna Dickinson that “they might, indeed, easily be mistaken for twin sisters.” Given that Anna Dickinson was white, this description suggests that the speaker was light enough to pass. Yet when Mary first returned to Richmond in 1860, she was arrested for going out without a pass, indicating that she was visually recognizable as “colored” and therefore assumed on sight either to be a slave in need of a pass or a free black in need of proof of her legal status. And when she happened to meet Charles Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1867, Beecher described her as “a Juno, done in somber marble … Her complexion was a deep brunette, her features regular, and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp.

“How are we to understand these contradictory sources? In an era in which photography was still in its infancy, it was rare to have a detailed sense of what someone beyond your immediate acquaintance looked like. The allusion to Anna Dickinson likely made sense to readers of the Eagle not as a specific physical description of the former intelligence agent but simply as a marker for the still unusual spectacle of a female speaker addressing an audience on political issues of the day. Although by our standards it might be regarded as an inaccurate comparison, the Eagle‘s description filled an expectation specific to its era, just as the photo purportedly of Bowser filled an expectation specific to our own era.

Bowser’s story evidences the wonderful truth that Americans of all backgrounds contributed to our history. But the enormous holes in what we have of her biography remind us that gender, race, and class also shaped how millions of Americans went unrecorded in what we rely on as the historical record, because they were restricted from holding property, voting, leaving wills, or being accurately recorded in censuses. Wanting to commemorate an African American woman who played such a dramatic part in the Civil War is laudable. Expecting to have a photograph of her was borderline ludicrous. (Consider that even what seems to most Americans today like basic information about the Civil War, the number of military deaths during the conflict, remains a matter of estimation and conjecture.)

The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women’s history and black history, can blind us to how much about the past remains unknowable. The paradox of the information age is that our unprecedented access to information feeds an expectation that every search will yield plentiful — and accurate — results. But the type of evidence that our 21st-century sensibilities most desire may be the least likely to exist.Uncovering the past is arduous work: Compare the ease with which an Internet search turns up the falsely labeled, cropped image of Mary Bowser with the number of sources I persistently contacted over a period of several years before locating the original cabinet card. Alas, in the age of the Internet, it may prove nearly impossible to curtail the use of that image as an avatar for the elusive slave-turned-spy, despite the definitive proof that it isn’t her.

Probing how our own desires shape our understanding of history can be revelatory. If a genie granted me the ability to learn any three things about Bowser, I wouldn’t choose what she looked like — it’s not nearly as important as understanding the choices she made that led to her extraordinary espionage, the dangers she faced in that position, or how she understood her own role in the struggle to end chattel slavery. But in telling her story, I admit I still find it hard not to want to offer a visual image, to present her in the way that is so quick, and so ubiquitous, today.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORLois Leveen

LOIS LEVEEN is a historian and the author of the novels The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse.    

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Reader’s Forum–Dr. Jessie Fields

Thoughts on the novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser and the Civil War from Dr. Jessie Fields

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a sensitive historical novel that highlights the participation of African Americans enslaved and free, in the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Mary Bowser was an enslaved young woman who was freed, lived in Philadelphia where she went to school, studied, read widely and was courted by but ultimately rejected the wealthy scion of a free black Philadelphia family. Mary returned to Richmond to care for her ill father and to work for emancipation. She posed as a slave in the Confederate White House and passed valuable information to the Union.

The novel is divided into three sections called books, Book One and Book Three take place in Richmond, Book Two in Philadelphia.

Mary’s mother, is the enslaved Minerva, a name that refers to the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, and to the Greek goddess Athena. During the years before slavery was ended by gradual emancipation in New York she was separated from her family and brought by the Van Lews to Virginia. Minerva teaches Mary to make riddles which includes lessons in being quick witted and observant. The ultimate riddle that Mary lives is her work as a spy communicating information in code straight from the desk of Jefferson Davis to General U. S. Grant and the Union Army. But Mary is not simply a spy for the preservation of the Union, she conveys or holds back information to ensure that the war is not ended without ending slavery.

One of the many features of the novel that deeply moved me was the portrayal of Mary’s family and how though enslaved they manage to make a home in Richmond, their relationship to each other is one of enduring closeness and deep love.  Her parents sacrificed greatly to allow their daughter to be free and she was determined to do all she could to end slavery.

 In Philadelphia Mary boards with an illiterate mother and daughter who refuse her offer to help them learn to read, she observes the poverty of many of the free black population, as well as the racism of the north where blacks were segregated, denied access to any except the most menial jobs, evicted from public vehicles, and were not accorded equal citizenship rights. Mary observes all this from her perspective of having lived in slavery and having family still enslaved. Eventually she becomes a key member of the Philadelphia underground anti-slavery network centered around the establishment of Alexander Jones, the undertaker and father of her closest friend Hattie. Mr. Jones funeral business is a stop on the Underground Railroad, with escaped slaves transported in coffins.

Wilson Bowser who Mary marries was a driver on the Underground Railroad from Richmond to Philadelphia, and he enlisted, as many African American men did, in the United States Colored Troops. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves was key to the Union victory in the Civil War. Also enslaved men, women and children contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy by leaving the plantations as soon as Union troops arrived.

Mary overhears many conversations in the Confederate White House (nicknamed the Gray House). Including conversations between Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Davis who Mary and others name Queen Varina and the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, who is from Louisiana and to whom Varina mangles the French Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverexpression tant pis. Mary names Benjamin “Aunt pis”. In one conversation between Varina Davis and Judah Benjamin on the likelihood that Queen Victoria will side with the Confederacy in the Civil War Varina says , “Britain needs us as much as we need her. Why, without Confederate cotton, what use are English mills?” Benjamin responds, “You might say the same for the New England mills, yet the Yankees make war with us.

They go on to discuss Lincoln’s offer to the border states of financial compensation for each slave in exchange for gradual emancipation. This proposal never ended up passing into law. Varina Davis defends the argument of the Confederacy that they were fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights to govern themselves. Benjamin responds, “You are correct. We do not fight for slavery. Neither does Lincoln (fight to end it). We fight to win, and so does he. But he is willing to sacrifice slavery in the process, while we are not.”

Mary took this conversation as substantiation of her mission to make the preservation of the Union contingent on emancipation from slavery. Slavery was the fatal flaw of the nation that cut violently into the soul of the country. Four score and seven years after the American Revolution it took a Civil War to end it.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

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Reader’s Forum–Joan DeCollibus on Mary Bowser and her Mother, Minerva

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I just finished reading Lois Leveen’s story about Mary Bowser, a Virginia slave who was freed in her teenage years and went on to school in Philadelphia and became active in the Underground Railroad. While the story focuses on Mary and her journey out of slavery, on Mother’s Day weekend, I am thinking of her mom, Minerva.

Minerva raised Mary in a slave household where they lived together, serving the Van Lew family. Minerva’s husband and Mary’s dad worked for and lived with another slaver. They were only allowed to see each other on Sunday’s. Minerva raised her daughter with care in their slave household, always protecting her from the dangers of slavery and teaching her everything she could so that Mary could steer clear of trouble with the Van Lew’s.

Upon the death of her father, Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent abolitionist, inherited money, enough to buy the household slaves from her mother which she does. While Minerva and Mary are freed by Elizabeth, we are disappointed to learn that she can not buy Mary’s father’s freedom.

Elizabeth hatches a plan to educate Mary in Philadelphia. Mary’s mom stays on at the Van Lew household to be near her husband.

I was struck by the courage it must have taken Minerva to let her daughter go on to Philadelphia alone. Mary was going off to a city on her own at a time when she could have easily been enslaved again by any white person who claimed she was their runaway. Mary, as ever courageous as her mother, actually shielded Minerva from the greater dangers that she was exposed to as she was secretly working as an abolitionist spy.
If her mother had only known! I am sure she would have been worried to the core while also being very proud of the daughter she raised.

Today, growing up black in America continues to be a threat to young people who are routinely rounded up and harassed by the authorities. On Mother’s Day, my heart goes out to every mother raising kids in a world where their lives are undervalued and they face racism at every turn.

Joan DeCollibus, an independent, living in Manhattan, is the owner of Ruffina.nyc, where she designs and produces clothing and accessories for little dogs and their humans.

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Lois Leveen on Writing Historical Fiction

Give a listen to Lois Leveen’s 2013 interview on Live Wire Radio for a great discussion of the perils of writing historical fiction (she reads her article, “Fear of a Red Tractor” on the show and it is posted below); Mary Bowser; and the Civil War.

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Authors, readers, critics, media − and booksellers.

Fear of a Red Tractor

Fear of a red tractor. That is what keeps a novelist up at night.

Remember the good ol’ days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Okay, maybe those days weren’t so good. But at least back then, the dentist was probably too busy to be a literary critic, too. My dentist, however, is another matter.

Last year, while giving my molars the once over, the dear old DMD told me about a book he’d been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of “a red John Deere tractor” sitting in a field. He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, “everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor.”

Tractor

Only a West Coast dentist can make a New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.

Authors — and our editors — are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that “real” detail wrong, you have blown it big time.

As it happens, one of my New York editors is originally from Virginia, where much of my novel is set. She suggested that the bird’s nest I’d tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that’s the state tree of Virginia — it would sound more specific, less generically Southern.

As it also happens, I’m an obsessed lunatic. I’d already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page one of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.

As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I’d made a reference to a straight razor.

You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any 19th-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and crossed it out.

Why?

Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone’s dad used, before disposables came along). Until then, they were just razors.

who you calling

In writing a novel based on a real person, I focused on crafting a compelling story. Which means sometimes I intentionally deviated from what I knew to be true. I’ve also unearthed new facts about Mary Bowser since drafting the novel (I told you I’m an obsessed lunatic — of course I’m still researching), which means those details aren’t in the book. Sometimes when I was writing, I made something up that I later learned was true, or close to the truth, which gives me goosebumps.

Still, I’m sure there are things I got wrong without realizing, in those devilish details. So if you happen upon a big ol’ red John Deere in the field of my fiction, please forgive me. And don’t tell my dentist.

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Politics for the People May Column on IVN

Below is my Politics for the People column from IVN this month.  It includes Caroline Donnola’s review of The Secrets of Mary Bowser.  Then join us as we read Lois Leveen’s wonderful historical novel.  Our conference call with Lois will be on Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Politics for the People Book Club: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Editor’s note: this article was co-authored by Cathy Stewart (introduction) and Caroline Donnola (main article).

The Politics for the People (P4P) Book Club brings together independent-minded Americans to read a wide range of books—both fiction and non-fiction—of interest to independents.  With each selection, we have a lively dialogue on the P4P blog culminating in an hour conference call conversation with our author.

We just finished reading Greg Orman’s book, A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream. On Sunday, April 15th we spent an hour with Greg talking about his current independent campaign for Governor of Kansas; the lessons he learned in his independent run for US Senate in 2014, and much more.

You can listen to our conversation on the blog.

Our next selection is the historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.  I am a fan of historical fiction. It can free us up to actually gain a deeper understanding of a particular moment in time, the leaders, the lives and the actions of ordinary people that shape history.

This book was recommended by P4P member Caroline Donnola, and I asked her to write the review below.  You can visit the blog, read along and join us on Sunday, June 3rd  at 7 pm EST when we will be talking with author Lois Leveen.

politics for the people

 

I’ve always loved to read, and then I majored in literature and writing. A lifelong fan of history, I often gravitate toward historical fiction as it combines these two great loves. Every day, on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I travel with my well-stocked Kindle. When I discovered The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, I knew I wanted to share it with members of the Politics for the People Book Club.

The story is an intriguing one. As a young girl, Mary, a Virginia slave, is freed by Bet, the daughter of her master who sends Mary to Philadelphia to be educated. There Mary lives as a free Black woman and becomes active in the Underground Railroad. She builds a new life for herself.

But when Mary’s mother dies and her father becomes ill, she returns to Richmond where she must live, once again, as a slave. When she sees the chance to continue her fight for freedom for all slaves, she becomes a servant in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ household where she spies on him and reports her findings to Union commanders.

Based on a true story and a real heroine, most of us have never heard of Mary Bowser. And because so little is known about her, the author is forced to imagine how Mary would think, speak and act as a child, in addition to as an educated woman and as a spy who must speak and act like a slave to conceal her identity.

Leveen creates Mary’s world and populates it with real and imagined historical figures in the years before and during the Civil War. We see, hear and feel Mary’s world of loving parents who are determined for Mary to have a better life.

We meet Elizabeth (Bet) Van Lew, the real-life daughter of Mary’s slaveholder who becomes an abolitionist, and upon her father’s death, frees all of her family’s slaves. But Bet cannot free Mary’s father who is owned by another family, and Mary’s mother will not leave without him. We feel Mary’s conflicts as she moves to Philadelphia to live as a free woman but has to leave her parents behind.

During her years in Philadelphia, Mary gets to know ordinary and extraordinary fellow travelers—free Blacks, Quakers and other abolitionists. She learns which parts of town she cannot enter and she encounters hate-filled white mobs.

We learn about the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the fights that took place amongst the abolitionists. We hear their arguments about John Brown, and we discover a historic event that took place when the train carrying his dead body passes through Philadelphia on its way to Brown’s burial site. We experience major Civil War battles and turning points. We witness Mary carefully and painstakingly carrying out her work as a Union spy.

I loved how the author was able to get inside Mary’s turbulent thoughts, her fears, her willingness to risk everything. Her relationships with her friends, parents, colleagues, and husband are complex and nuanced. In particular, her relationship with Bet is thorny, but it develops through their joint efforts to end slavery.

Leveen begins the book with two quotes that help shed light on how she thinks about this mix of history and imaginings. From Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience… Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises.”

And from African American abolitionist and women’s rights leader Maria Stewart:

“Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?”

In The Secrets of Mary Bowser, we go on a journey filled with love, hope, pain, and sorrow. I hope you will relish this journey as I did and join the Politics for the People call with author Lois Leveen on Sunday, June 3rd.

 

P4P Recordings–A Conversation with Greg Orman

Orman_stewart_promo

 

On Sunday, April 15th, we had the pleasure of spending an hour with independent candidate for Governor in Kansas, Greg Orman.

Greg is a successful businessman and entrepeurner who ran as an independent for the US Senate in 2014 and made national headlines with almost unseating the incumbent Republican Pat Roberts.  In 2016 Greg wrote A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream.  The book offers a powerful look at independents and our potential role in moving our country beyond, what Greg so aptly calls, weaponized partisanship and is a scathing indictment of the two party system, the duopoly.

You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

In our opening segment you will hear my introduction of Greg and our initial conversation where we talked about what Greg hopes people take away from his book, the unique role he sees independents and independent candidates playing in bringing people together and they dynamics in the current gubernatorial race.  Give a listen:

 

Evelyn Dougherty from the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters asked our first question.  Book club members in MA wondered what were the most important lessons Greg learned as an independent candidate in 2014 that he is taking into his independent run for Governor this year? Here is what Greg shared with us:

 

Steve Richardson, the founding member of Virginia Independent Voters Association and asked our next question about the struggle independent voters face and the need for structural political reform at a state level.  You can listen to Greg and Steve’s conversation here.

 

Dr. Jessie Fields and Greg had a rich conversation about the divisions in the country and how to bring differing communities together. Dr. Fields shared, “My view is that the parties divide the American people and the Black community is being told in many ways that its interests are synonymous with…the Democratic Party in particular.”  Greg agreed and said, “…the two parties tend to want to divide us because it serves their electoral purposes, and yet we all understand how fundamentally damaging that is to our country. And so I think, if you are genuinely an independent and you genuinely put your country and your state ahead of any political party or frankly ahead of any other interest, then ultimately you have to be working in the service of bringing people together. ” You can listen to their full interaction about the African American community and how Greg is reaching out to bring people together outside the parties here.

 

Steve Hough, the Director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries asked Greg his view of the Top Two Nonpartisan Primary System. Greg shared his past support for the system and some of the challenges he believes the Top Two system presents for independent candidates.  You can listen to their exchange.

 

Harry Kresky, Independent Voting’s general counsel asked Greg how he saw the issue of independents having the right to vote in primaries—was it a bottom line issue that the movement could agree upon.  In his response, Greg shared his view, “…One person, one vote is something the Supreme Court has codified in law yet one person one vote doesn’t seem to apply if you’re an independent….There is a basic inconsistency in the law and again courts have consistently confirmed that partisan primaries are private political behavior and yet they seem to not have a problem with the government paying for that private political behavior….I think the way we’re going to start making progress on opening up primaries, particularly in states where there isn’t a citizen driven initiative, is largely going to be through forcing the courts to make a more consistent decision.” You can listen to the full exchange:

 

Sue Davies, the coordinator of New Jersey Independent Voters shared with Greg that she works with independents who are pursuing a strategy of taking over one or the other of the major parties.  Greg shared with us that this is not a strategy that he has given a lot of thought to and pointed out, “…We need to start recognizing that as independents we have the numbers and we have to start coalescing around candidates and ultimately winning some elections is a way to change the perception about the viability of independent candidacies.” Give a listen:

 

George Trapp, a member of Independent Voice of Ohio told us that he was glad to read in Greg’s book his view of the importance of addressing economic mobility and poverty. George asked Greg if there what were examples of the government doing too much and examples of the government doing too little to help poor people. You can hear Greg’s response.

 

You can listen to the full recording of our P4P conversation below.

 

If you would like to stay up to date on Greg’s campaign, please visit OrmanforKansas.org.

 

***

Please join us for our next selection:

The Secrets of Mary Bowser.

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Hope you will pick up your copy of the book today. 

We will be talking with author Lois Leveen 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

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