Reflection on The Secrets of Mary
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–
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!

The Secrets of Mary Bowser