How true is The Secrets of Mary Bowser
This is a work of fiction — not a biography. Nevertheless, many scenes in the novel draw on real incidents and involve real people, including leaders in the black community in Philadelphia as well as prominent white Unionists and Confederates in Richmond. As a former college professor, I've read and taught many works written by black Americans during the nineteenth century. As someone who loves historical research, I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out what Mary and the people she met would wear, eat, read, and do. It's a great pleasure to share the historical background through the eyes of such a compelling character.
At times I purposefully altered factual details for the sake of the story, such as omitting the existence of Bet’s younger sister, and creating a family connection between Wilson Bowser and David Bustill Bowser, who were both real people but as far as I know were not related. Although Thomas McNiven claimed to be central to the Union spy ring in Richmond, as a novelist, I gave him more credit than I would as a historian! Despite these intentional changes, I made every effort to be historically accurate and to present events and language that were plausible for the era.
As much as I enjoyed researching the period, people, and places depicted, the most exciting part of the writing involved imagining what cannot be found through research: the thoughts, motivations, and daily actions of the characters, especially Mary Bowser. She was truly an American hero, and I hope my interpretation goes a small way toward making up for the loss of her story as she would have told it.
One of the most amazing experience I've had as a novelist was speaking at the Museum of the Confederacy with Elizabeth Varon, author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy
, a scholarly biography of Bet. We spoke about fact and conjecture in the work of historians and in the work of historical novelists. You can watch the program online through C-SPAN's American History TV