Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sara K Joiner: A Review of "Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring"

If you or your students are interested in codes, ciphers and clues, then Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Alberti is just the book for you.

Telling the fictionalized story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who worked as part of Elizabeth Van Lew's Union spy ring during the Civil War, readers will find a woman determined to do what she can to end the horrors of slavery. Mary served as a servant in the Confederate White House and was well-placed to learn a great deal of information that passed across Jefferson Davis' desk.

While the book isn't long or difficult to read, it has a great deal of drama and danger which makes it ideal for reluctant readers. Mary has an antagonistic relationship with O'Melia, the Irish lady's maid to Varina Davis. Will O'Melia discover that Mary isn't the simple-minded servant she claims to be?

Mary had been a slave for the Van Lew family before being freed by Elizabeth who recognized Mary's intelligence. After being sent to school in Philadelphia, Mary eventually taught in Liberia before returning to the United States to marry. Her wedding occurred on the same day Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. Not long after that, Elizabeth Van Lew began recruiting spies for the Union and convinced Mary to work in the Davis household. Clever and educated, Mary Bowser risked her life spying for the Union. If anyone had learned she could read and write, she could have been killed as it was illegal in Virginia for slaves to be literate.

In addition to the story, the main focus of the book is on spycraft and deciphering messages. Throughout the tale, Mary keeps a diary (which may or may not be historically true) that she hides in different places throughout the Confederate White House. Readers' goals are to use the clues hidden in pictures and across the margins to find the final hiding place of the diary. An envelope with a Caesar cipher wheel, vellum with cutout holes, red acetate and a page from Uncle Tom's Cabin help readers solve the puzzles to lead them to the answer. If they grow frustrated or cannot solve them, the answers are provided in a sealed section at the end.

There are lots of clues. I have to admit that I didn't even spot all of them until I read the answers. Morse code, Vignere ciphers, the language of flowers, hidden writing -- it's all here to be pored over and puzzled out by readers.

While I will admit to not being the type of reader who particularly likes codes, I did enjoy deciphering the clues and challenging myself to solve the problems before I gave up and broke the seal. That's when I learned that although I had determined the location of Mary's diary, there were quite a few other clues I missed.

The acetate, vellum, cipher wheel
and page that come with the book.
Unfortunately, because of the pieces that come with it, this book wouldn't necessarily stand up to heavy library or classroom use and is really only able to be used by one, or perhaps two, readers at a time. It is fun to solve the riddles, though, and I gained a tremendous appreciation for the poor men and women who had to translate simple messages into codes that appeared to be gibberish. That takes some time!

And, of course, it is always worthwhile to learn about people and their lives. Mary Bowser was quite remarkable and even began teaching freed slaves to read almost as soon as the war ended.

Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring is written by Enigma Alberti and illustrated by Tony Cliff. It is the first of Workman Publishing's Spy On History series. The next book in the series, Victor Dowd and the WWII Ghost Army, will be available in January 2018.

Workman Publishing supplied a free copy of the book for review purposes.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes. She is also a public librarian.

No comments:

Post a Comment