Mary Bowser was a real woman who lived in the mid 19th century in Richmond, VA. Her owners, the Van Lew family, gave her her freedom and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. Later she returned to Richmond, married a free black man, and spied for the North during the Civil War while her husband spirited slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad. Mary eventually got a job as a maid in the house of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, a perfect position from which to send valuable information to the north. Davis knew someone was getting information out from the Gray House but Mary, as a slave, was invisible to him; he never suspected her.
This is a short synopsis of the plot which doesn't do justice to the personality and determination of the main characters or the undercurrent of fear that runs throughout. In this fictional account of Mary Bowser's life, we follow her to Philadelphia and back and to the end of the war.
Mary's former owner, Bet Van Lew, is one of the most intriguing characters. She's a dyed in the wool abolitionist and yet she really doesn't have a clue what it means to be a slave. Her color blindness is naive and touching, but she also manages to ignore danger to accomplish some valuable work getting news out, saving slaves, and bringing much needed food in from her outlying farm. Even more impressive is that this spinster from a privileged family never complains of or even reveals the heavy sacrifices she must make during the war.
Mary is of course the character around whom everything revolves. She has a prodigious talent for memorizing. She is strong and inventive but not superwoman. Occasionally her fears overcome her courage but she pulls herself together and does what she has to do. Her story will pull you in and won't let you go.
This is definitely going to be on my Best Books of 2012 List.