Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Lois Leveen


On Sunday, June 3rd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Lois Leveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Lois says that she “dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet.” She has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC and UCLA and has taught at UCLA and Reed College.

In addition to being a novelist, Lois is a frequent essayist and contributor to the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Huffington Post and many other publications, literary and scholarly journals.

In the opening section of the call, you can hear Lois and I discuss how she first met Mary Bowser and decided to write the book.  We talk about the relationship between Mary and Bet Van Lew, the woman who freed her and was her collaborator in spying on the Confederacy.

Give a listen here or below:


Caroline Donnola, who orginally recommended The Secrets of Mary Bowser to be a Politics for the People selection, asked Lois how she created and built out the characters of the book, especially Mary Bowser.  How did she decide what she should sound like, how she should think, how she would respond to her many life challenges?  You can hear their conversation here or below:


Helen Abel from CA shared that one of the most astonishing parts of the book for her was how Mary Bowser extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. She asked Lois whether she this part of the book was something she uncovered in her research and whether there were other spies who impacted the civil war in this or in similar ways?  Listen to Lois’ answer:


Alice Rydel was eager to ask Lois if she considered herself a social activist? Give a listen to her answer:


Dr. Jessie Fields shared with us how much she appreciated The Secrets of Mary Bowser, and how much it “…conveys a great deal of African American history in a very intimate fashion, that history also being integral to American history. ” She asked Lois how her study of African American literature influenced the writing of the novel. Lois talked about how much she learned from authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many African American women authors about “how difficult it is to negotiate protecting your family in a place where you legally really have very few or no protection of them.”  She talks about the creation of Mary Bowser’s voice, and the private school education she received.  You can hear the full response here and below:


Jenn Bullock, the coordinator of Independent Pennslyvanians commented on how “powerfully and unapologetically” Lois portrayed the racism in Philadelphia, particularly among white progressives.  You can listen to Lois’ response.  She talks about how “not everybody who was antislavery would have described themselves as an abolitionist.”


Harry Kresky and Lois talked about Clarence Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, the movie Black Panther and, as Harry put it, the complicated and controversial “issue of what African Americans and others do with opportunity, giving back so called…”  A fascinating conversation to listen to:


Julie Leak shared how much she loved the book and some of her reminisces of growing up in the South.  Lois talked about a visit to Richmond during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation and a visit to Lumpkin’s Alley with an African American woman whose family lived in Richmond for generations.  Give a listen:


You can listen to our entire conversation below:


And if you would like to learn more about Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, take a look at this wonderful CSPAN video, “A Spy in the Confederate White House” from 2013. The video features Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond; Lois Leveen; and Elizabeth Varon, Professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. 

Lois’ second book is Juliet’s Nurse, which tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of Juliet’s nurse.  I have added this to my summer reading list.


We will announce our next selection soon.





Reader’s Forum — Alice Rydel. Reminder: Call at 7 pm EST

I never heard of Mary Bowser before reading Lois Leveen’s historic novel. Such a range of experiences and imagery! From the sadness of having her shiny ribbon thrown into the fireplace, being separated from her mamma and papa, her papa’s iron cross, getting kicked off the omnibus in the liberal north to Mary shooting the soldier in the head. Her

Alice-1remorse for this action unnecessary and her decency and bravery inspiring. I had to keep reminding myself this was an historic novel and yet left wondering about all the unknown people and actions of bravery that took place.

There were the humorous yet serious depictions of Aunt Piss and Queen Varina. And maybe this wasn’t so humorous as an “Aha!” moment: The slaves were invisible until there was the realization the Confederacy was losing, to paraphrase the leaders, “We have millions of slaves, we can recruit them too!” Then realizing what that would really mean!

Thinking about today, I’m fortunate to live in a comfortable building complex, about three blocks from a run-down housing project. There are many neglected housing projects throughout NYC, occupants are people of color who are starting to fight back for being treated as invisible. I walk out my door and there are homeless people on the streets. If you walk by the grand U.S. Post Office early in the morning, dozens of invisible people are sleeping/living on the stairs.

Then I turn on the news and hear that the economy is better, unemployment is down. Where are these people? Simply dropped from their statistics? Invisible?

Alice Rydel is a long-time activist with the independent development community.




Join us tonight for the 

Politics for the People

Conference Call 

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Dial In and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#


Reader’s Forum on $2.00 a Day continues


I’m moved by Kathryn Edin’s book and all the comments it inspired. Here’s mine:

Our political system represents the wealthiest of the wealthy. We’re never honestly told, “Here are the leftover crumbs. Fight among yourselves.” Rather, we’re lied to with “Here are the jewels. The best and most worthy among you may achieve them.”

I grew up on the South side of Chicago in the 50s. The first Black family that moved into my neighborhood had their house firebombed. During my teen years in the 60s we 20171204_134452moved to the Roseland neighborhood Edin wrote about. The Pullman factory was closed, people living right across from that isolated factory were referred to as lesser-than — as hillbillies. When football games took place at Gately Stadium with Black schools, fights always broke out.

Thinking that one part of humanity was more worthy than another – fighting over crumbs — was just a part of life.

In the 70s, I met an activist fighting against social injustices. She was on my college campus, had pen and sign-up sheet in hand, and I signed up. This new life activity changed my world view from nothing can be done to we’re the ones who have to bring about change.

As others have commented about “$2 a Day”, it’s going to take a lot of us to make that change. Tiani Xochitl Coleman’s comment touched me: “…we need a change of heart, a deepening of our cultural values to help solve the problems of poverty.”

 This isn’t just a psychological change. It’s lots of work – team work as the college students referred to – to change our political system. No one should be forced to live on crumbs.

Alice Rydel is a thirty year builder of the All Stars Project and a life long independent.  

A Poem and A Song

Today we wrap our celebration of National Poetry Month with two selections: a poem chosen by Alice Rydel and an original song by Joe Pickering, Jr.


In selecting Before the Scales, Tomorrow, Alice shares:

Here’s to memories, friendships, audaciousness, love, activism, prickliness, differences, agreements, forward-thinkingness, organizing, fighting for a world of humanity in such an inhumane time.”

Before the Scales, Tomorrow

By: Otto Rene Castillo

And when the enthusiastic
story of our time
is told,
who are yet to be born
but announce themselves
with more generous face,
we will come out ahead
–those who have suffered most from it.

And that
being ahead of your time
means much suffering from it.
But it’s beautiful to love the world
with eyes
that have not yet
been born.

And splendid
to know yourself victorious
when all around you
it’s all still so cold,
so dark.

Alice Rydel is a builder of the All Stars Project’s Castillo Theatre and long-time activist with the independent political community.


Joe Pickering, Jr. shares his original Song, More American Then Plymouth Rock.

Give a listen, and the full lyrics are below.









(repeat last line in last verse several times and fade.)

Joe Pickering Jr.. Songwriter  Harry King artist and producer  King of the Road Music BMI  C 2017

 Joe Pickering, Jr is the President of Mainers for Open Elections.

You can listen to More American Than Plymouth Rock here.





The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy 

By David Daley

Will kick off on Monday.

Our conference call with the author will be on Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST.

Alice Rydel’s selections

Alice Rydel sent in two poems —a wonderful combination.  She writes, “I have two below. The first, is another Otto Rene Castillo poem, Satisfaction. The second, is by an old dear friend, Lew Steinhardt, Dying.”

— By Otto Rene Castillo
The most beautiful thing
for those who have fought a whole life
is to come to the end and say
we believed in people and life,
and life and the people
never let us down.
Only in this way do men become men,
women become women,
fighting day and night
for people and for life.
And when these lives come to an end
the people open their deepest rivers
and they enter those waters forever.
And so they become, distant fires, living,
creating the heart of example
The most beautiful thing
for those who have fought a whole life
is to come to the end and say;
we believed in people and life,
and life and the people
never let us down.
— By Lew Steinhart
“Dying”, an old word, yet new
“Dying” enters from stage left,
ready to exact revenge
 For years of not being taken seriously
For years of denial of mortality
For years of being disparaged
For years of villanization.
“Dying” approaches me with sexy night attire and sexy voice
attempting to be sexy with me,
hoping for my love and understanding
Hoping to be welcomed
as a partner
for the trip to The End.
We manage some awkward dialogue at first
I quickly reject you,
I shudder at the thought of
such finality.
Such finality is beyond me.
I fight you with all of me.
You find openings and pierce my armour
And you show me your strength in battle.
Yet you also offer the peace sign
Hoping for collaboration.
An old revolutionary I am
Schooled by Fred Newman in the skills of performance and improvisation.
I have learned to take offers
And I have learned that History is the Final Residing Place
and that History is created with revolutionary activity.
I find myself strangely open to this
And explore it with my health team, group and comrades
The old words take on new meaning in the process.
I am alive in new ways
And that will, as I grow, continue.
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