Dear Ellen Bee: A Scrapbook of the Civil War

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"...I've put all the papers in order by date, so you'll have a story. Not just an ordinary tale about the Civil War which freed our people from slavery. Most folks think rifles and cannons put down the Southern rebellion. No, this scrapbook tells of Ellen Bee, two spies who won the war with softer weapons..."

In a fictional format that recalls the scrapbooks kept by women in the nineteenth century, Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch piece together the true story of Ellen Bee — ...

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Overview

"...I've put all the papers in order by date, so you'll have a story. Not just an ordinary tale about the Civil War which freed our people from slavery. Most folks think rifles and cannons put down the Southern rebellion. No, this scrapbook tells of Ellen Bee, two spies who won the war with softer weapons..."

In a fictional format that recalls the scrapbooks kept by women in the nineteenth century, Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch piece together the true story of Ellen Bee — the code name used by two extraordinary women who courageously undermined the highest level of the Confederacy.

Elizabeth Van Lew — Miss Bet — was a wealthy white woman at the pinnacle of Richmond society, different from her socialite friends only in her deep abhorrence of slavery. Mary Elizabeth Bowser — Liza — was the daughter of two of the Van Lew family's freed slaves who had decided to stay on at the Church Hill mansion as paid and respected servants. As the strong-willed Liza matured, she grew to resent Miss Bet's well-intended "plans" for her life. The two constantly chafed as the Civil War flared around Richmond and Miss Bet was driven deeper into efforts to help the Union cause. Soon she found herself called upon to enlist the help of her beloved Liza when she saw an opportunity to plant a spy in the heart of the Confederate camp. And with Liza willing to risk the dangers of posing as a slave, so began a chain of communication that supplied the Union generals with vital information in their conduct of war.

A scrapbook kept by a young black girl details her experiences and those of the older white woman, "Miss Bet," who had freed her and her family, sent her north from Richmond to get an education, and then worked to bring an end to slavery. Based on the life of Elizabeth Van Lew.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lyons (Letters from a Slave Girl) and Branch (Juneteenth) explore the tensions of the Civil War via a scrapbook format in this novel told through letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, etc. Ellen Bee is the joint alias of Miss Bet, a wealthy white woman, and her freed slave, Liza, who wind up acting as Union spies in Richmond, Va. Meticulously researched and based on real persons and events, the novel covers the years 1856-1865, starting from the time Miss Bet sends a 10-year-old Liza to be educated in Philadelphia. A rift occurs when Liza marries and returns to Richmond, which is mended only when the two unite in the spy Ellen Bee, sending critical messages via letters and code ("And as it turned out, Ellen Bee was a better person than either of us on our own"). The authors exploit the scrapbook format fully and offer surprising insights into history; for instance, facsimiles of freedom papers, train tickets with a rebus for the many illiterate travelers and a broadside from a Frederick Douglas rally are "pasted" onto the pages. Ultimately, many readers may find the cantankerous Miss Bet more memorable than Liza, who sometimes lacks depth. If the narrative occasionally falters, (e.g., the late mention of Miss Bet's deceased abolitionist friend, Fannie, who awakened the protagonist's consciousness to the wrongs of slavery), this is still a well-informed account of daring women fighting the good fight away from the battlefields. Ages 10-14. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
The historical Ellen Bee was a composite of two women, a wealthy Richmond socialite and her freedwoman "adoptive" daughter. Elizabeth Van Lew sacrificed her safety, security, and family fortune for the antislavery cause. She spent the last years of the Civil War disguised as "Crazy Bet," a raving madwoman who was able to collect information on Rebel troop movements and share it with General Grant. Her commitment to the Union cause doomed her to spinsterhood since her one serious suitor was an avowed secessionist. Van Lew was aided in her espionage by her freed house servants and their daughter, Van Lew's namesake, Liza. Van Lew and Liza's troubled relationship is spelled out in the diaries and letters that formed the factual basis for this work of fiction. Despite their cooperation in the cause of freedom, Liza has an ongoing struggle against her patron's need to control her as an overprotective "parent." We see Liza fight to establish her credentials as an adult while she is drawn into Van Lew's plotting, even to the point of taking a position as a paid servant in the house of a Rebel officer. This is a job that would cost her her freedom and her life, if she were found out. This involving account of two strongwilled women, each a littleknown hero of the Civil War, offers an informative period piece personalized by a very contemporary struggle for adolescent independence. 2000, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Ages 10 to 14, $17.00. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross
KLIATT
The format of this fascinating tale is a bit difficult to follow in places; it contains letters and journal entries written by two different main characters, two women who lived in Richmond, Virginia, who were spies for the Union. One is a wealthy white woman committed to the abolition of slavery and the success of the Union; the other is a much younger woman, a freed slave who agrees to pose as an illiterate servant in Jefferson Davis's household in order to pass on military secrets that would hurt the Confederacy and aid the Union. These two women actually existed and have been honored for their important roles in the history of military intelligence. The two women were known as one person, Ellen Bee, because they worked as a team to obtain the secrets and then pass them on. The authors try their best to get this convoluted story told, and sometimes the reader may not be entirely convinced as to one event or another; sometimes the reader may be a bit confused. The basic story of the spying is too good to pass up, however, and the details of the relationship between the two women are less important. The authors have as a main theme the basic conflict between the two women: Miss Bet is rich, authoritarian, and "managing"; Liza is glad that Miss Bet freed her and her parents, but resents her managing ways. Liza defies her whenever she can, yet she does choose to cooperate when called to put her own life in terrible danger right in the Confederate White House itself. The two women are equally committed to ending slavery and do their best to overlook their differences to work together. The illustrations are especially interesting and the authors have gone to a lot of trouble to makethem so. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2000, Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 161p, 99-42050, $17.00. Ages 13 to 15. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
VOYA
The epistolary format of this fictionalized account of two espionage heroines during the Civil War contains authentic illustrations of memorabilia and news clippings. Elizabeth Van Lew, known as Miss Bet, was a wealthy Richmond society abolitionist whose family freed its slaves. Although Mama and Daddy Bowser chose to remain in the Van Lew family's employ, their young daughter, Liza, was sent by Miss Bet to be educated in Philadelphia. Her spunky personality shines through her coming-of-age letters, as Liza experiences loneliness and racism, the start of her "monthlies," falling in love with Wilson, and seeking her true independence. Readers need to pay close attention, as the authors of the early letters might become confusing. Miss Bet's letters are dated in bold typeface, whereas Liza's letters are always dated in italics. This scrapbook pieces together social customs with details about the impending crisis between the Union and the Confederacy. The two women become "Ellen Bee" to protect their undercover correspondence that aids the Union forces. Liza returns to slave status, and fills a position in the Jefferson Davis household. Loyalties are expressed vividly in these letters and the suspense builds as the war escalates. Fans of the Dear America books will enjoy this artful presentation. The deciphering of the coded messages is particularly clever. Students of the Civil War will find accurate historical material, including the horrors of the slave auction, conditions of the prisons, the formation of the first Negro troops, and the devastation of the South. Terrific research provides a fascinating portrait of these real heroines. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marredonly by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2000, Atheneum/S & S, Photos. Charts. Source Notes. Further Reading, 176p. Ages 12 to 15. Reviewer: Nancy Zachary VOYA, February 2001 (Vol. 23, No.6)
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-Elizabeth (Bet) Van Lew, an aristocratic Richmond lady, and Mary Elizabeth (Liza) Bowser, the daughter of Bet's freed slaves, are bound into a tempestuous yet loving relationship that is severely tested by the Civil War and by their own fiercely independent personalities. Miss Bet has grand plans for the girl; she wants her to go to school in Philadelphia and become a teacher because she will "not have my girl waiting on spoiled white women." Liza resents Miss Bet's efforts to dictate her future and is determined to live her life as she chooses. The clash of these two strong-willed women and their fierce devotion to one another and to the abolitionists' cause and the preservation of the Union are at the heart of this fascinating espionage story. It is based on the real-life activities of these two remarkable women, who used the code name Ellen Bee to pass information behind enemy lines. The narration, told through diary entries and letters and filled with authentic period illustrations and lively historical detail, is told in the contrapuntal voices of the two narrators. The scrapbook functions brilliantly on two levels-as historical document of the courageous work of the two Union spies and as a testament to the personal relationship between an older white woman and a younger black woman who is journeying from childhood into adult independence.-Patricia B. McGee, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Told in a series of letters between young freed slave Liza Bowser and Miss Bet (Elizabeth L. Van Lew), who freed young Liza and sent her from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia to be educated, this is fiction based on facts. Set before and during the US Civil War, a picture of those years, personalities, and conditions emerges in scrapbook form, with period illustrations, articles from newspapers, other documents, letters, and diary entries. Miss Bet, a wealthy Virginia abolitionist cared deeply for Liza and could not abide slavery. When War commenced, Liza, now back in Richmond and considerably grown, joined with Miss Bet and they became spies, providing the Union with news of the capital city of Confederacy, and other information. The latter is from the home of Jefferson Davis, where Liza served as a house slave taking care of the Davis children. Rather than being identified by their real names, the two are known as Ellen Bee. Always informational in a non-didactic way, with strong characterization and sometimes fraught with suspense, this tale delivers a view of that time in a different way. At times, diction slips into a very modern style ("yakked," "pitch a fit") and an oddly long and detailed letter from Miss Bet to Liza, in Confederate Richmond, is so full of important information that if found by enemies, it could destroy the entire Union spy ring and send the spies to their deaths. It is an expository device, but makes Miss Bet appear unintelligent. The "scrapbook," with incidents from the lives of two real people, should hold readers and be of special use when the Civil War is studied. A map of Richmond would have been a nice addition.(Historicalfiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689823794
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 176
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 780L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary E. Lyons is the author of the acclaimed novels Letters from a Slave Girl and Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, both ALA Best Books for Young Adults. In addition to the recent novel The Poison Place, other Atheneum books include Starting Home: The Story of Horace Pippin, Painter; Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist; Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers; and Master of Mahogany, a Booklist Editor's Choice Book. Ms. Lyons lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband, Paul.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

January 1, 1899 My dear niece, Polly Bowser,

When I was your age, I thought I was something special. And why wouldn't I, with everybody always telling me so? You know, too much attention can go right to a child's head.

Anyway, in those days every decent young lady had a scrapbook where she could store treasures and write secret thoughts. Being that I was so special, I figured Miss Bet should give me one, too, and of course I got my way. All sorts of things landed in the album. Letters, flowers, cards, sketches, diary entries...for a while, this messy book held my whole self between its covers.

That was over forty years ago.

I wish I had a feathered hat for every time I've opened it since then, hoping to find my long-ago times. But when I read about the dark days of the Civil War (I call them the hanging days), my fingers start to shake.

I guess memories can't make us young again, and this is how it should be. So you keep the book now, Polly. Maybe it'll be a friend to you the way it was to me...Sometimes it felt like the only friend I had.

Inside are the thoughts of a scared young girl. You'll also see letters from Bet Van Lew (I saved even the dangerous ones) and my answers to her. I slipped these into the book when Miss Bet returned them years ago.

Along with the letters she gave me some sheets torn from her own album. Her words and mementos were too private, she said, for anyone's eyes but mine. Miss Bet wrote her deepest feelings in her scrapbook, and as you read her pages, Polly, you'll see she was no ordinary woman. It took courage to do what she did in Richmond during the Civil War.

Richmond, Virginia, was real contented with itself beforethe war began. People were making money from flour mills, tobacco factories, iron works, and slave trading. These folks lived on the city's highest hills, where it was easy to look down on workers below...German and Irish immigrants, poor whites, free Negroes, and hired-out slaves.

But Miss Bet wasn't contented at all about slavery. If only she'd stayed on her hill like the other rich white women! Things might have been different if she'd minded her own business. She lost everything, yet it never occurred to her to give up the fight.

You'll see, Polly, that my album pages are topped with a leaf and Miss Bet's with a vine. And I've put all the papers in order by date, so you'll have a story. Not just an ordinary tale about the Civil War, which freed our people from slavery. Most folks think rifles and cannons put down the Southern rebellion.

No, this scrapbook tells of Ellen Bee, two spies who won the war with softer weapons...a bowl of custard, a faded bonnet, a loaf of bread, and an old leather shoe.

Love,

Aunt Liza

Copyright © 2000 by Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch

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First Chapter

Prologue

January 1, 1899

My dear niece, Polly Bowser,

When I was your age, I thought I was something special. And why wouldn't I, with everybody always telling me so? You know, too much attention can go right to a child's head.

Anyway, in those days every decent young lady had a scrapbook where she could store treasures and write secret thoughts. Being that I was so special, I figured Miss Bet should give me one, too, and of course I got my way. All sorts of things landed in the album. Letters, flowers, cards, sketches, diary entries...for a while, this messy book held my whole self between its covers.

That was over forty years ago.

I wish I had a feathered hat for every time I've opened it since then, hoping to find my long-ago times. But when I read about the dark days of the Civil War (I call them the hanging days), my fingers start to shake.

I guess memories can't make us young again, and this is how it should be. So you keep the book now, Polly. Maybe it'll be a friend to you the way it was to me...Sometimes it felt like the only friend I had.

Inside are the thoughts of a scared young girl. You'll also see letters from Bet Van Lew (I saved even the dangerous ones) and my answers to her. I slipped these into the book when Miss Bet returned them years ago.

Along with the letters she gave me some sheets torn from her own album. Her words and mementos were too private, she said, for anyone's eyes but mine. Miss Bet wrote her deepest feelings in her scrapbook, and as you read her pages, Polly, you'll see she was no ordinary woman. It took courage to do what she did in Richmond during the Civil War.

Richmond, Virginia, was real contented with itself before the war began. People were making money from flour mills, tobacco factories, iron works, and slave trading. These folks lived on the city's highest hills, where it was easy to look down on workers below...German and Irish immigrants, poor whites, free Negroes, and hired-out slaves.

But Miss Bet wasn't contented at all about slavery. If only she'd stayed on her hill like the other rich white women! Things might have been different if she'd minded her own business. She lost everything, yet it never occurred to her to give up the fight.

You'll see, Polly, that my album pages are topped with a leaf and Miss Bet's with a vine. And I've put all the papers in order by date, so you'll have a story. Not just an ordinary tale about the Civil War, which freed our people from slavery. Most folks think rifles and cannons put down the Southern rebellion.

No, this scrapbook tells of Ellen Bee, two spies who won the war with softer weapons...a bowl of custard, a faded bonnet, a loaf of bread, and an old leather shoe.

Love,

Aunt Liza

Copyright © 2000 by Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2008

    Awesome!

    This book shows an amazing veiw on the life of woman during the civil war. It is about two determined woman who refuse to sit around and not take place in the war. It's a great read for all ages.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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