Reflection on The Secrets of Mary Bowser By HOBERLANDER | Published: JUNE 21, 2013 | Edit The detail that really drew me into the book was the story about was when Mary fans her mistress and Miss Bet, while Miss Bet reads the newspaper article about the railroad thief to her mother aloud, and then Mary recounts the article word-for-word, leading her mistress to believe that she is able to read! How horrible that the mistress was so afraid of what the Virginia neighbors would think if Mary could read that she was willing and considered to have her whipped! I was appalled, of course. But after giving Mary an opportunity to prove her innocence by reciting the article verbatim without looking at it, the mistress not only believes the truth, but also grapples–along with Mary’s mother and Miss Bet–that her true gifting has been revealed for having a photographic memory, which we find out later is the key to her becoming the Union spy in Jefferson Davis’ home! The Secrets of Mary Bowser really complicated my ideas about slavery with the story about when she was eight years old, and her daddy brought her the piece of orange ribbon that she tediously sewed to the sleeve of her dress to look pretty, but she had to burn it when the mistress of the house finds out, she makes Mary burn the ribbons in the fire. As the little girl watches her special ribbon from her dad consumed in the blaze, she recalls the line, “I still couldn’t tell pride from vanity, but I sure could tell slave from free.” These early childhood memories truly shaped Mary’s view of the world around her and her “place” in it, which was not at all equal despite the claims that her master and mistress treated their servants with far more care than others in Virginia. This account highlighted for me this young girl’s feelings about herself as a person and her self worth, which really resonated with me, because my students are this same age, and I feel so much of my purpose as their teacher is to instill within them value for themselves and for them to recognize their value in this world. I connected to Mary in this story which dispelled any assumptions I had had in the past that slavery was not as bad if the family they were owned by was “nice,” or had a “northern bent.” The story makes it clear as day, that slavery was bad all the way around– period. I think the book explores the changing concepts of freedom and equality when Mary comes back from having gone to school in Pennsylvania, and she has the conversation with Mr. Bowser about how she has to become aware again that she carries herself proud and does not have callous, bruised hands like the other hard working black women of Virginia–hence, she is in danger of others being suspicious of her. It is quite clear from the stigmas surrounding the Richmond area that free blacks were an unheard of concept and that black persons were “safer” pretending that they were “slaves,” rather than trying to live as a free person–for fear of their well-being and ultimately their. I had never recognized this before, and I question the Virginia SOL 4e that I am supposed to teach which leads students to believe that if a black person was free in colonial Virginia, he did have limited opportunities; and yet, it is obvious that less than a hundred years later, the reality for free black persons living in this state were far less “amiable” than this idea from the curriculum guide lets on. How could such a vast shift have taken place between the colonial time period and the Civil War time period in Virginia? I am a big fan of incorporating historical fiction into my guided reading group times and as recommended selections for my students to choose from for reading projects we do and for their reading log independent reading time! Obviously, Mary Bowser is an adult book with adult themes, but I think it offers an excellent example of how looking at history from the lens of a real person enables the reader to “live through the history” itself! It is one thing to give a student a fact to memorize and try to understand and grapple with–it is another thing to give a student a story with a real person who struggles with the hardships, feelings, and joys of life during time periods of the past. Children love to pretend, and unfortunately, because of video games and mass media–a lot of the ability a child used to have to pretend has already been done for them. However, one of my goals as a teacher is to rekindle the beauty of capturing a student’s imagination in a way that holds him or her with excitement and enthusiasm–and history unlocks this door of imagination, particularly historical fiction! From books like Pocahontas and the Strangers to Sign of the Beaver, to Johnny Tremain and Phoebe the Spy, to Toliver’s Secret and Across Five Aprils, and to Mr. Lincoln’s Drummer to Twenty and Ten, children’s literature and young adult historical fiction novels are the key to unlocking the past for students to take part in their present worlds!