Sarah Emma Edmonds was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy

By: Carrie Jones
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books
Publication Date: April 2011
ISBN: 978-0761353997
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: March 2011

Sarah Emma wasn't really a boy, but she pretended to be because she wanted to please her father. He was really mean to her and "she thought if she were a boy he might like her." It wasn't going to happen because he was abusive and nothing she could do would ever change the way he felt about her. Sarah was really, really good at pretending and eventually that talent would come in mighty handy, but in the meantime she'd have to put up with that big old accusing finger pointing at her. She knew that being a "pretend boy" would never make him happy so when she was a teenager she decided to run away.

Being a runaway teen from Canada wasn't going to help her eat and so she started selling Bibles. It wasn't safe for women to roam the countryside in the 1850s so she decided to pretend again. This time she "bought men's clothes and cut her hair." Sarah, or Frank Thompson as she was now known, began her new life in the United States. Soon the Civil War began to roil around the country and in 1861 she thought to herself, "What can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama?" She pensively put her hand to her chin and decided that she would try to join the Union only to be rejected for being "too small." There was no doubt she would try again.

Finally, when she was able to enlist Sarah became a nurse in the Second Volunteers of the United States Army. They were headed to the South where the fighting was fierce. As Sarah stood outside a tent watching someone being operated on, she once again grew pensive. There was a great need for someone to spy because a Union soldier had just been captured. Sarah was still Frank, but she was also a great pretender. Could she possibly pretend enough to get the job? If she got it, would she be able to help the Union ferret out the "plans of the Confederate Army?"

Sarah later wrote her biography and snippets of it are interspersed throughout the text, adding a nice touch to the tale. For example, when asked about her pretending to be a soldier, she states: "I am naturally fond of adventure, [I am] a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic--but patriotism was the true secret of my success." The story is well written and kept my interest from the first page to the last. The artwork was detailed, expressive, and captured the emotional nature of this "great pretender." The little real life twist at the end was surprising and will bring a smile to the young reader's face. In the back of the book is a selected bibliography, a photograph of Sarah posing as Frank, and a brief biographical sketch and conjecture as to her motivation for pretending to be a man.

Quill says: This is a fascinating story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who pretended to be a man during the Civil War.

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