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Keeper of the Doves

Keeper of the Doves

4.6 5
by Betsy Byars

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Amen McBee, the youngest of five sisters, gobbles up words the way other children gobble up sweets.  She couldn't be more different from her elder twin sisters Arabella and Annabella-called the Bellas.  The mischievous Bellas constantly frighten Amen with stories of Mr. Tominski-the old recluse who lives in the woods nearby and mysteriously tends to a flock


Amen McBee, the youngest of five sisters, gobbles up words the way other children gobble up sweets.  She couldn't be more different from her elder twin sisters Arabella and Annabella-called the Bellas.  The mischievous Bellas constantly frighten Amen with stories of Mr. Tominski-the old recluse who lives in the woods nearby and mysteriously tends to a flock of doves.  The Bellas insist that Mr. Tominski is a dangerous bogeyman who eats children whole, but Papa vows that the "keeper of the doves" wouldn't hurt a soul.  When tragedy strikes the family Amen must decide once and for all who is right.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a boxed review, PW called this a "jewel-like novel. In tightly constructed scenes, the author slowly and fluidly unspools the small revelations that aid in the narrator's understanding of the [late-19th-century] world around her." Ages 8-12. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Albert McBee named his four daughters at their birth—Abigail, Augusta, Arabella and Annabella. In 1891, when the fifth daughter is born, he pronounces, "Amen!" Thus, Amen McBee begins life and soon distinguishes herself among her sisters as someone who loves words. By age 6 she has written her first poem. Much of the story takes place when Amen is an 8 year old, as she tries to understand the relationship that her father has with Mr. Tominski, who is the keeper of the doves. This short novel has a memoir feel to it. The characters include a frequently pregnant mother, a scolding Aunt Pauline who serves as the children's caretaker and a loving, visiting grandmother who brings Kodak box cameras for everyone. Serious drama occurs with a wounded dog and a fatal accident, requiring that readers have an emotional readiness for a book that speaks of murder. The ending is uplifting and circular with Amen teaching words to her baby brother Adam. 2002, Viking,
— Jacki Vawter
School Library Journal
Gr 3-7-Betsy Byars' family saga of one summer in the life of a family at the turn of the century is a simple story, but it contains a powerful message (Viking, 2002). The book's theme revolves around words, their beauty and their power to change lives. The tale is told by Amen, the youngest of six daughters in the McBee family, all of whose names begin with the letter A, as does their father's name. Their mother is a detached, reclusive woman named Lily, separated from the family by her delicacy and her name. The girls spend much time together, and are parented by their very much unloved Aunt Pauline. Amen, or Amie as she is called, is a "wordsmith" according to her grandmother, since she uses words and poems to understand and celebrate the world around her. She is introduced to the recluse, Mr. Tominski, who lives in their chapel, by her identical twin sisters who are known collectively as the Bellas. The twins delight in scaring Amie with their games, and they paint Mr. Tominski as a child-eating monster. Amie is intrigued by the man and his gentle way with the doves he has tamed. When a cruel remark by the Bellas causes Mr. Tominski to react with terror, Amie commemorates his life and his place in their family with a poem. The book's 26 short chapters each begin with a letter of the alphabet, and are filled with wonderful symbolism and symmetry. Cassandra Campbell reads Amen's words as dexterously as if they are poems, and her inflections reflect the assorted personalities of the McBee family. The result is a wonderful portrait of family life at the end of the 19th century, as well as a thought-provoking tale about judging people and the sometimes elusive quality of truth.-MaryAnn Karre, Horace Mann Elementary School, Binghamton, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Sales rank:
590L (what's this?)
File size:
378 KB
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

chapter one

A for Amen

"Another girl? Not another girl? Don’t tell me I’ve got another daughter!"

These were the first words my father spoke after I was born. Of course I was just minutes old—way too little to remember—but I have heard the story so often that I really think it is my memory.

It was a hot summer evening, 1891, and thunder could be heard as a storm rolled in from the west.

Papa’s voice was very loud—especially when he was upset. The words certainly would have come through the door to Mama’s room, rivaling the thunder for attention.

"She’s a fine, healthy girl," Grandmama said. It was she who had brought the bad news. "Be grateful, Albert."

Papa seemed not to hear her. He looked up at the ceiling. "What’s left?" He dropped his hands to his sides in a gesture of hopelessness.

"We’ve got Abigail! Augusta! Arabella! Annabella!"

My father, in his despair, said the names so loudly that my sisters, thinking they had been summoned, rushed into the hall in their nightclothes.

"You have a sister," he said.

"A sister?" In my memory they were disappointed as well.


"What’s her name?" Abigail asked. As the oldest, she spoke for all of them.

"I’m thinking."

My father had insisted that his children’s names all begin with an A. "When I have used up all the beautiful A names, I will move on to B," was his explanation.

"There’s nothing left," he said.

"Does this mean you will go on to the Bs?" Abigail asked.

I waited in my blanket for my fate. It came, but I was too little to know how I was doomed.

"Amen!" my father pronounced.

There was a silence.

"Papa, that’s not a name," Abigail said, "That’s something you say at the end of a prayer."

"It is the end of a prayer—a prayer for a son. Amen!"

"Albert," Grandmama said, "you’re upset. Think about it and—"


My father ran down the stairs. "Albert," Grandmama called after him, "the storm!" He slammed the screen door as he left the house, driven by his own inner storm.

In her room, my mother kissed my brow. She whispered, "We’ll call you Amie," in a soothing way.

But in the family Bible—where it counts—it says: Born July 11, 1891, a daughter—Amen McBee.


chapter two

The Bellas and

the Parts of a Dog


"Bellas! Bellas! Are you looking after your sister?"

"Yes, Aunt Pauline," the twins called back in unison.

"Well, don’t get into any mischief."

"No, Aunt Pauline."

I had just had my third birthday and was, as usual, in the Bellas’ care. The twins—Arabella and Annabella—were called the Bellas. No one—not even Mama—could tell them apart.

The Bellas were only two years older than I, but because there were two of them, they seemed twice as smart. They had taken me on as their personal improvement plan and on this day were enlarging my vocabulary.

We were beneath one of the willow trees from which our home got its name—The Willows. Keeping us company was Scout, the dog.

"What is that?" a Bella said, pointing to the dog.


"A dog doesn’t have a chin," she said.

"He do."

"Do not."

"It be a little chin, but it do be a chin," I argued. My grammar wasn’t perfect, but I did know the parts to a dog. I had recently learned that everything had a name and gobbled up words the way other three-year-olds gobble sweets.

Scout sat quietly, stoically waiting the outcome of the debate over his chin.

"Oh, all right. It be a chin," a Bella said, stressing my bad grammar.

Scout was Papa’s dog, but he’d had four other little girls teach him patience, so he lay on his side, motionless except for his eyes, which rolled around, taking in everything. Without lifting his head, he could keep watch on the whole world.

I started over. "Chin . . . nose . . . eyebrow . . ."

I paused to glance from one twin to the other. Eyebrows, too, were sometimes disputed.

Neither twin answered. They were looking to the back of the house.

"Ear . . . neck . . . knee. . . . paw . . . toe . . . toenail."

I was just getting to "back," which always caused Scout’s leg to jiggle with pleasure, when a low rumbling sound came from the dog.

I drew my hand back in alarm.

"He’s growling at old man Tominski," a Bella said. "He doesn’t like old man Tominski, and we don’t either."

"I don’t either," I said quickly, even though this was the first time I had ever heard the name.

"He spies on us."

"He wants to catch us, like that." The Bella’s small hands curled into claws.

"Yes, like that."

Now the other Bella’s hands formed identical weapons. With four hands reaching for me, I knew the first real fear of my life. I stepped back

"And let me tell you something," she said, as if she were Aunt Pauline, who was always stern with us.


"When Scout growls, you better run."

"When Scout growls at somebody, there’s something bad about that person."

"Something really, really bad."

I looked toward the barn, but there was no one there. "I don’t see him," I said.

"You never see him, but he’s there."

"Yes, he’s there and he sees you!"

"But he’s all gone," I said, hoping it was true.

"For now," the Bellas said in unison. They often spoke the same thought at the same time, as if their minds were connected.

Although I had not seen Mr. Tominski—and would not actually see him for several years—my dread of him had begun.


chapter three



"Children! Do not make faces behind my back!"

Aunt Pauline said this to the twins. I stood with my mouth open in amazement. How did Aunt Pauline see what they were doing? Our maid, Frances, had said, "That woman has eyes in the back of her head," but I had never been able to see them.

"Children, that’s better." Aunt Pauline always said children as if the word itself was distasteful. Still she had not turned around.

Aunt Pauline was my father’s sister who lived with us. She was officially in charge of the children. We had had nurses when we were infants, but as soon as we were considered girls, the kindly nurses disappeared and the unkindly Aunt Pauline took over.

On this day I had followed Aunt Pauline quickly from the dining room. At lunch she had made a comment about Mr. Tominski, and I wanted to ask her what she had said.

I had still never caught sight of the elusive Mr. Tominski, but he was always a dark shadow at the edge of my mind, just as he was at the edge of our lives.

I broke in with, "What did you say about Mr. Tominski, Aunt Pauline?"

"She said he was lurking around Frederick’s memorial garden," a Bella said.

"What’s ‘lurking’?" I asked.

"Like this." The twins did a sinister turn around the room, hiding behind chairs and peering out.

This caused Aunt Pauline’s frown to deepen. When she frowned, her nose got longer. Now it almost touched her lip.

"I also said that your father didn’t need to visit the man every day and that Cook didn’t need to take him meals."

She took a deep breath and went back to the original topic. "If you make ugly faces, children, your face will freeze like that."

With the sudden insight of a four-year-old, I

said, "Is that what happened to your face, Aunt Pauline?"

There was a terrible silence, broken only by muffled laughter from the Bellas. I didn’t see anything funny.

Now Aunt Pauline looked at me. There was such fury in her face that I stepped back. I would much rather she had looked at me with the eyes in the back of her head than the ones in the front.

"Children should be seen and not heard, Amen."

"Amen," the twins said in unison, as if they thought it was some sort of pronouncement.

"Children who ask questions will not learn the truth."

I knew that Aunt Pauline made up some of these things, but she looked as if she meant it, and then she swept from the room.

The twins collapsed on the love seat in laughter, kicking their feet in uncontrolled glee.

I was still awed by the terrible look from Aunt Pauline and wondering how you could learn the truth if you didn’t ask questions. "What’s so funny?" I asked.

The Bellas were good at imitating people. And as soon as Aunt Pauline was out of earshot one of the Bellas sat up and said, "Children!" It was Aunt Pauline’s voice. "Children, if you tell a lie, your nose will grow long and ugly."

The other Bella said in my voice, "Is that what happened to your nose, Aunt Pauline?"

They fell back again. More laughter, more kicking.

I was a serious child and was always surprised at the things others—particularly the Bellas—found funny.

Finally, their mirth spent, the Bellas went outside, and I followed. I tried to turn the conversation back to Mr. Tominski. "Why did Aunt Pauline say he was lurking in the memorial garden?"

The Bellas were busy making up a new Aunt Pauline insult and didn’t answer.

"What does he do anyway?"

No answer.

"He must do something!" I was aware that all the people at The Willows had specific duties. That was how our food got prepared, our clothes laundered, our gardens tended.

"Somebody tell me what he does!" I remembered the Bellas had spotted him at the barn. "Is it something to do with the horses?"

But the Bellas’ minds continued, trainlike, on a single track.

"Children, if you frown at a horse, your face will turn into one."

"Did you frown at a horse, Aunt Pauline?" Again, it was my innocent voice asking the question.

During the rest of the afternoon, in the middle of one of our games, one twin would break off and say, "Children," in that terrible Aunt Pauline way that made me wish I wasn’t one of the group. "Children, if you say the word witch, you’ll turn into one."

And my voice would pipe up from the other: "Did you say the word witch, Aunt Pauline?"

I still didn’t see what was so funny, but by now, I had stopped asking for an explanation and made myself laugh along with them.


Meet the Author

Betsy Byars began her writing career rather late in life. "In all of my school years, . . . not one single teacher ever said to me, 'Perhaps you should consider becoming a writer,'" Byars recalls. "Anyway, I didn't want to be a writer. Writing seemed boring. You sat in a room all day by yourself and typed. If I was going to be a writer at all, I was going to be a foreign correspondent like Claudette Colbert in Arise My Love. I would wear smashing hats, wisecrack with the guys, and have a byline known round the world. My father wanted me to be a mathematician." So Byars set out to become mathematician, but when she couldn't grasp calculus in college, she turned to English. Even then, writing was not on her immediate horizon.

First, she married and started a family. The writing career didn't emerge until she was 28, a mother of two children, and living in a small place she called the barracks apartment, in Urbana, Illinois. She and her husband, Ed, had moved there in 1956 so he could attend graduate school at the University of Illinois. She was bored, had no friends, and so turned to writing to fill her time. Byars started writing articles for The Saturday Evening Post, Look,and other magazines. As her family grew and her children started to read, she began to write books for young people and, fortunately for her readers, discovered that there was more to being a writer than sitting in front of a typewriter.

"Making up stories and characters is so interesting that I'm never bored. Each book has been a different writing experience. It takes me about a year to write a book, but I spend another year thinking about it, polishing it, and making improvements. I always put something of myself intomy books -- something that happened to me. Once a wanderer came by my house and showed me how to brush my teeth with a cherry twig; that went in The House of Wingscopyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

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4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Betsy Byars’ creation, Keeper of the Doves, is a beautiful, simple story with entertaining characters and teachable moments.  Amen (nickname “Amie”) McBee is a child who loves words while growing up in the shadows of her older sisters.  The chapters are in alphabetical order and supports Amen’s love of words.  Amen learns to forget the prejudices against the old Mr. Tominski who lives on the outskirts of the family’s land in a run-down chapel.  This book is a lesson for everyone to spend the time in order to know someone before judging the person.  It is a great summer read packed with life lessons for all ages. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Another girl! Not another girl? Don't tell me I've got another daughter!' Those were the first words Amen McBee heard when she was born. It was summer at the willows in 1899 and the Bella's (Amen's twin sisters), Abigal and Augusta (also sister's of Amen), and Mr Tominski are about to encounter some adventures that could turn their small world upside down. They will be faced with new inventions, death, and new people coming to their world. Amen herself has to witness the death, the birth, and the unforgiving anger. In this book the pages really fly and I really felt as though I were being sucked into the novel as it got more and more in depth and intenser. You other middle schoolers will have a greater sense of self after reading this book I guarantee it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very good and well written. It is about Amen and her pesky sisters mainly, the Bella's. But when Amen becomes curious about Mr. Tominski, the mysterious man who lives in the cemetary, the Bella's start telling her stories. They tell her things that frighten Amen, and makes her terrified of Mr. Tominski. But Amen soon learns the family history with Mr. Tominski, the keeper of the doves, and could change her feelings about him forever. I enjoyed this book very much! Some parts are suspensful and if you like that in a book, Keeper of the Doves could be a book for you. I felt like I was in the book, right there with Amen and some of her fears. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone.