The Secrets of Mary Bowser
offers college and high school students and teachers a means to explore topics and themes across many subject areas, from history and literary studies to science, math, and visual and performing arts.
The novel is particularly compelling for teachers or schools looking for multicultural content. Because much of the book focuses on Mary's experience leaving her community to seize an education, it's especially relevant for First-Year Experience courses, convocation and commencement programs, senior capstone classes, and other settings that focus on helping students to make a successful transition into a new school, or to prepare students to think about how to apply aspects of their education outside of school.
Download the full Teaching Guide for The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Some Key Themes and Issues for Teaching the Novel:
1. The power of education to change a life
: Because Mary Bowser is educated—when white Southerners do not expect that of a black person—she is a particularly powerful intelligence agent.
2. Overcoming stereotypes
: Throughout the book, African Americans challenge the stereotypes whites have of them, and women of both races challenge the roles and behaviors expected of them. But Mary, Bet Van Lew, Thomas McNiven (an immigrant), and Wilson Bowser also play on stereotypes that keep anyone from suspecting them.
3. Developing personal responsibility and a commitment to act on behalf of the larger community
: Mary—and the reader—see her espionage as a heroic contribution to ending slavery. But making that contribution requires personal sacrifice. She must give up her freedom and her friends to return to the South. During the war, she decides to remain in Richmond rather than bring her own father to freedom. Later, her husband leaves Richmond to join a black Union regiment, putting himself at considerable physical risk.
4. Parental expectations and determining your own path
: Throughout her life, Mary's mother and father insist she is special. In some ways, their certainty helps her seize opportunities, but ultimately she has to come to trust her own judgment and not second-guess her choices, even when the results are upsetting (such as her father's illness, or her own violent encounter with a Confederate soldier).
5. The process of learning to work with those who are different from you
: In both her antislavery work in Philadelphia and her spying in Richmond, Mary interacts with people who are very different from her. She learns to trust Zinnie Moore, Thomas McNiven, and, ultimately, Bet Van Lew. Conversely, each of these white allies learns from her. Mary also grows to understand that even among the African Americans who are active in the anti-slavery movement, there are disagreements about tactics and approaches, despite the shared goal of ending slavery.
6. The way class, opportunity, and values can divide members of a community
: Readers are especially interested in Mary's experience as part of the free black community in Philadelphia. Many blacks there are much poorer than she expected. Some of the more financially secure African Americans in Philadelphia believe economic advancement should be a higher priority than social/political activism, while others are deeply involved in social justice efforts.
7. The importance of understanding how women and people of color shaped American history
: Because Mary Bowser was a real person, studying her story and exploring why her amazing achievements remained relatively unknown can open up discussions about what an "American hero" is.
"The Secrets of Mary Bowser
would be ideal for use as a common reader or in a first year experience program. Lois Leveen is a dynamic and engaging speaker and a natural teacher who can appeal to a wide range of audiences."
— Professor Gloria Hochstein, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and President-Elect, Sigma Tau Delta Board of Directors
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