Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
I finished reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by Lois Leveen this past Sunday. I bought the book nearly a year ago when I went with another writer friend, Sybilla Cook, who knew Ms. Leveen, to hear her speak at the Oregon Historical Society.
Ms. Leveen described how she was inspired to write the story of Mary Bowser: a freed slave from Richmond, VA, whose former mistress sent her to Philadelphia to be educated and who then returned to Richmond shortly before the Civil War began, to help her father. Once Virginia and the other Southern States seceded, Mary, who wanted to do anything she could to abolish slavery, took on work at the Grey House–where Jefferson Davis and his family resided during the war.
I figured it would be a good selection for my book club, which I shall be hosting next Tues.
Ms. Leveen’s description of how she was entranced by the few clues she found about Mary’s life while researching her dissertation resonated profoundly. I’d learned of family connections with the Civil War years before I could do any further research.I bought a copy of this book and told Ms. Leveen. that I would make it my Book Club selection for this year.
I loved the way Ms. Leveen set up the premise that Mary had a nearly photographic memory for things she overhears. This makes believable the premise that she pretends to be an illiterate ex-slave and gets work in Jefferson Davis’ household for the explicit purpose of over-hearing vital information about troop movements, then communicating this information, encrypted, to the Union Army. She was a spy–whose work was crucial to the Union victory.
I was reading the book last week,: exactly 150 years after the final days of the Civil War. Ms. Leveen writes of conditions in Richmond as Union forces put increasing pressure on Petersburg and then finally broke through. This, too, resonated vividly, since I’d put so much effort into envisioning the opposite side of the equation..
She mentions City Point, and describes how life in Richmond became more and more impossible for everyone.
My great-grandfather ran the second Union train into Richmond, on Saturday, April 8, the day before Appomattox. Ms. Leveen describes devastating fires during the last days. John Bailey must have seen something like this when his train pulled through town:
Read the book. The narrative is credible, increasingly gripping. The ending is perfect.
But the real lesson for me was how crucial it is to create believable, sympathetic characters and then maintain the depth of the characters’ emotional perspective in a way that sustains a reader’s interest and empathy. It was an excellent model for improving my work in progress.
And this was an excellent model for my anticipated re-write of Reflections of a Civil War Locomotive Engineer. As my 10-year-old grandson observed last week, I made up scenes and conversations, “Isn’t that historical fiction?” Now I need to make it jucier.