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Treasonous Or Heroic? Act Of Civil War Era Slave Inspires New Book

Courtesy of Marianne Pestana
Author Dr. My Haley with Dr. Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibit behind them explores the life of Mary Louvestre, whom Haley based her book on.

Surrender is an act that would seem foreign to Mary Louvestre, the protagonist in author My Haley’s new historical fiction novel. The book is loosely based on a real-life act of bravery during the Civil War.

This is Haley’s first book, although she collaborated, without credit, with her late husband author Alex Haley on his famed 1976 novel Roots. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is the planned first in a series of six books Haley wants to write on the Civil War period.

In her novel, Louvestre, a slave and seamstress in Norfolk, Virginia gains access to the plans of the CSS Virginia, an inronclad ship. In the winter of 1862, smuggled copies of the plans in hand, she journeys 200 miles north and drops them on the desk of Union Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. This true-life act was simultaneously heroic, in the eyes of the north, and treasonous for the majority of southerners at the time.

“In her heart it was an act of love because she wanted to use what she did in the hopes of helping to re-establishing a better perspective in the south,” said Haley, who was interviewed at Rocky Mountain PBS studios in Denver while on a book tour. “She loved her homeland, she loved it.”

Fear can loom over any of life's endeavors. When it threatens the craft of Haley, who has started writing the second book in this series, she is unmoved. The petite and soft-spoken woman posits a cheeky "hi" and forges on.

“That blank piece of paper can be more terrifying than anything in the world. It will take you to your knees if you are not careful,” said Haley, who adds that she writes without an outline and typically wakes to her characters "sitting on her bed" waiting for her with their stories. “When you sit down to work, to write, let it go. Open. Surrender.”


The tension of Louvestre's journey is illustrated in the books’ cover art: A pin cushion made from the cloth of a Confederate flag. Louvestre, driven by gumption and fortitude and a desire to champion civil rights, is far from a pin cushion.

Which women carry that spirit forward today?

“Certainly you can single out exceptional people all the time but we all have our place in this walk,” said Haley, a PHD in African-American Studies. “Mary was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing and that’s like us all.”

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUVO.

A native of Stamford, VT, I call(ed) the Berkshires of western Massachusetts my home. The Berkshires are a culturally rich area -- I’m talking pass the butter and heavy cream -- rich.
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