Monday, January 24, 2011

Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender

Jones, Carrie. 2011. Sarah Emma Edmonds was a Great Pretender. Minneapolis: Lerner.

Author, Carrie Jones, probably best known for her Need series, is not be the first author who comes to  mind when thinking of picture book biographies, however, in Sarah Emma Edmonds, she has clearly found a subject that sparks her interest.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in Canada to a cruel father who wished she were a boy.  Unhappy and unable to please him, she eventually fled to the United States and began a new life on her own. She began by selling Bibles, door-to-door, and soon discovered that she sold more and was more readily accepted when dressed as a man. When her adopted country began recruiting soldiers for the Union Army, Sarah joined up, disguised as a man, and giving the name of Frank Thompson.  This would be remarkable enough, but Sarah Emma Edmonds went on to become a successful Union spy. She darkened her skin with silver nitrate and posed as a Southern slave, stealing information on Southern positions and fortifications.  Two months later, she returned to the Confederacy. 
This time she pretended to be Bridget O'Shea, a chubby Irish peddler. She was a woman (Sarah) pretending to be a man (Frank) pretending to be a woman (Bridget).  This would be confusing for most people, but not for Sarah.
Jones does a fine job of distilling the life of this complex woman into a hero story that can be easily understood by younger readers.  The basics of the war are explained, but the war is not the story here.  Sarah Emma Edmonds is the story; children should find her bravery and cunning fascinating.

Although the Author's Note reveals that Sarah Emma Edmonds later revealed her Civil War exploits in a memoir and was belatedly accepted by her fellow soldiers (even the federal government eventually granted her a pension), the book ends with the following, 
She pretended that she was never Frank Thompson, never a spy, never rode a horse named Rebel, and never stole Confederate secrets. Sarah Emma Edmonds was a fantastic pretender.  No one had a clue.
Hopefully, readers will persevere through the fine print author's note and discover the successful resolution of Sarah Emma Edmonds' dual life. Leaving the reader with the impression that her valor and determination went unappreciated is a bit disheartening. Overall, though, this is an inspiring story of a young woman who took a bad beginning and turned it into a grand and honorable adventure.

Sarah Emma Edmonds bookmark available as a PDF download.

Digital Advance Reader copy supplied by Netgalley.

Because I do not own a Color Nook, I will again refrain from commenting the double-spread, painted illustrations by Mark Oldroyd.  In the future, I will be sure not to request picture book review copies in digital format.  My apologies to Mr. Oldroyd.

Photograph of Emma Edmonds in women's clothing
Photo from Library Archives Canada
Emma Edmonds in women's clothing

Source: Frank Thompson : her Civil War story
by Bryna Stevens 1st ed. -- New York : Macmillan Pub. Co. ; Toronto :
 Maxwell Macmillan Canada ; New York : Maxwell Macmillan International,
 c1992. -- 144 p. : ill., map, ports. ; 22 cm. -- ISBN 0027881857. -- P. 124
© Public Domain

 Today's Nonfiction Monday is at Great Kid Books.


  1. Your book caught my attention because I just read Annie, Between the States by Ann Rinaldi. Rinaldi modeled her character, Sarah, on Sarah Emma Edmonds. It was an interesting novel and after reading your review, I can see that many of her ideas came the real life of Edmonds. Thanks for this great review.

  2. I am so excited about all of the Civil War titles coming out this year. I'm especially fascinated by the stories of women who disguised themselves as men to join in the war effort. Thanks for sharing this one!

  3. Boy, that Ann Rinaldi book I read left such an impression on me I wrote the wrong title - I meant Girl in Blue not Annie, Between the States.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Yes, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there should be many books forthcoming on the topic. As a matter of fact, I just found out that in the spring, Abrams Books will be releasing Nurse, Soldier, Spy, another biography of Sarah Emma Edmonds. And Alex, The River Between Us by Richard Peck is another classic historical fiction Civil War story.


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