I did an enormous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The novel is based on the true story of a woman born into slavery who was freed and educated in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Historical fiction can be a powerful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosenay, readers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Bowser’s bravery, like the horrors enacted at Vel’ d’Hiv, should be more broadly remembered. But for authors, blurring the lines between history and fiction can still feel risky.
Quite a few of the facts that I incorporated into The Secrets of Mary Bowser—particularly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Richmonder whose wartime escapades including digging up and reburying the body of a Union officer killed by the Confederates—were so bizarre, I feared readers would find them too implausible, even though they were true.
What concerned me most, however, was not that the true parts of the novel wouldn’t be believed. It’s that the parts I invented would be mistaken for fact. Knowing the historical record provides such scant documentation of Mary Bowser’s life that I couldn’t possibly write a biography, I authored the novel as a way to commemorate Bowser’s achievements and to guide readers’ understanding of what slavery was like in urban, industrialized Richmond, and what free black life was like in antebellum Philadelphia.
Despite a detailed historical note included in the book, though, a surprising number of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser attribute biographical details to the historical Bowser that were entirely my own invention. As I’ve taken to saying, just because you read something in a book about a real person who played an important role in the Civil War, doesn’t mean everything in the book was true.
As it turns out, the first person to fictionalize Bowser’s life story was Bowser herself. “The Black Slave in the Confederate White House,” an article I wrote for The New York Times, documents her continuing self-reinvention, before, during, and after the Civil War. Bowser likely made a good spy precisely because slaves live lives of surreptition and concealment. The strategies that enabled her to survive enslavement also facilitated her espionage. It shouldn’t surprise us that even after the war was over, Bowser continued her cagey—and effective—habit of constructing a series of public identities to serve different purposes.
Like many published authors, I didn’t choose my book’s final title. But I’ve come to relish the irony it implies. While Sarah’s Key suggests that once we find the key we can unlock all of history, The Secrets of Mary Bowser entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while reminding us that there is much that may always remain hidden.
Lois Leveen’s newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available.
There’s a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?
Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I’ve joked that I don’t need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.
Jen’s novel reminds us that “Jewish” is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn’t Jewish?
Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary’s mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary’s future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother’s insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war’s devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus’ plan. Not a very Jewish story.
Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.
There’s no doubt I’m a Jew. I’ve got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I’ve even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as “the Shmethicist,” an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I’m a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?
Maybe it’s a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary’s mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary’s trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary’s relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual’s responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes Moses, Daniel, Esther—even the reluctant Jonah. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.
When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn’t mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.
Read more about Lois Leveen here.