Ear­li­er this week, Lois Lev­een wrote about what makes a book Jew­ish. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Some­times truth is stranger than fic­tion. But it can be hard to tell.

I did an enor­mous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bows­er. The nov­el is based on the true sto­ry of a woman born into slav­ery who was freed and edu­cat­ed in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by pos­ing as a slave in the Con­fed­er­ate White House. His­tor­i­cal fic­tion can be a pow­er­ful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rose­nay, read­ers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Bowser’s brav­ery, like the hor­rors enact­ed at Vel’ d’Hiv, should be more broad­ly remem­bered. But for authors, blur­ring the lines between his­to­ry and fic­tion can still feel risky.

Quite a few of the facts that I incor­po­rat­ed into The Secrets of Mary Bows­er—par­tic­u­lar­ly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Rich­mon­der whose wartime escapades includ­ing dig­ging up and rebury­ing the body of a Union offi­cer killed by the Con­fed­er­ates—were so bizarre, I feared read­ers would find them too implau­si­ble, even though they were true.

What con­cerned me most, how­ev­er, was not that the true parts of the nov­el would­n’t be believed. It’s that the parts I invent­ed would be mis­tak­en for fact. Know­ing the his­tor­i­cal record pro­vides such scant doc­u­men­ta­tion of Mary Bowser’s life that I could­n’t pos­si­bly write a biog­ra­phy, I authored the nov­el as a way to com­mem­o­rate Bowser’s achieve­ments and to guide read­ers’ under­stand­ing of what slav­ery was like in urban, indus­tri­al­ized Rich­mond, and what free black life was like in ante­bel­lum Philadel­phia.

Despite a detailed his­tor­i­cal note includ­ed in the book, though, a sur­pris­ing num­ber of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bows­er attribute bio­graph­i­cal details to the his­tor­i­cal Bows­er that were entire­ly my own inven­tion. As I’ve tak­en to say­ing, just because you read some­thing in a book about a real per­son who played an impor­tant role in the Civ­il War, does­n’t mean every­thing in the book was true.

As it turns out, the first per­son to fic­tion­al­ize Bowser’s life sto­ry was Bows­er her­self. The Black Slave in the Con­fed­er­ate White House,” an arti­cle I wrote for The New York Times, doc­u­ments her con­tin­u­ing self-rein­ven­tion, before, dur­ing, and after the Civ­il War. Bows­er like­ly made a good spy pre­cise­ly because slaves live lives of sur­rep­ti­tion and con­ceal­ment. The strate­gies that enabled her to sur­vive enslave­ment also facil­i­tat­ed her espi­onage. It should­n’t sur­prise us that even after the war was over, Bows­er con­tin­ued her cagey — and effec­tive — habit of con­struct­ing a series of pub­lic iden­ti­ties to serve dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es.

Like many pub­lished authors, I did­n’t choose my book’s final title. But I’ve come to rel­ish the irony it implies. While Sarah’s Key” sug­gests that once we find the key we can unlock all of his­to­ry, The Secrets of Mary Bows­er” entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while remind­ing us that there is much that may always remain hid­den.

Read more about Lois Lev­een here.