cover image Dear Ellen Bee: A Scrapbook of the Civil War

Dear Ellen Bee: A Scrapbook of the Civil War

Mary E. Lyons, Muriel Branch. Atheneum Books, $21.99 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-689-82379-4

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.)