Cover image for Keeper of the doves
Keeper of the doves
Byars, Betsy Cromer.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 2002.
Physical Description:
121 pages ; 20 cm
In the late 1800s in Kentucky, Amie McBee and her four sisters both fear and torment the reclusive and seemingly sinister Mr. Tominski, but their father continues to provide for his needs.
Reading Level:
590 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR MG 4.0 3.0 63092.

Reading Counts RC 3-5 4.1 6 Quiz: 31868 Guided reading level: O.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
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X Juvenile Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf
X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf

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For aspiring writer Amen McBee, life at the end of the nineteenth century with her four older sisters (Augusta, Abigail, and the "Bellas," twins Annabella and Arabella) is full of adventure. There are visits from Grandmama, who teaches them how to use the new Kodak cameras, and there are plenty of places to explore on the family estate, the Willows. There is also a new baby to look forward to-and everyone hopes Papa's prayers will finally be answered and this time Mama will have a boy. The only trouble in Amen's life is Mr. Tominski, the strange old man who lives in the woods and keeps a trained flock of doves. The Bellas warn Amen that the dove keeper is not to be trusted but Amen's father insists that Mr. Tominski wouldn't hurt a soul. Who is right?

Author Notes

Betsy Cromer Byars was born in1928. She graduated from Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. While she was in graduate school, she began writing articles for The Saturday Evening Post and Look.

Byars writes novels for young people. She is an expert at tapping in to the pain of adolescence, using bits of her own experience to flavor her characters. She is author of more than 23 books and has won numerous awards. Her book about a 14-year-old girl and her mentally retarded brother, The Summer of the Swans (1970), won the Newberry Award as the most distinguished contribution to children's literature that year. Other books include The 18th Emergency (1973), The TV Kid (1976), and After the Goat Man (1995).

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 5-8. In this spare story young Amen McBee confronts birth and death and tries to reconcile the enigmatic behavior of human beings and the shifting realities that comprise life. Her father wants a son, but Amie is the youngest of five daughters who include «the Bellas,» the inseparable, identical twins, Arabella and Annabella. In the quiet world of the late 1800s, unusual things demand attention, and one of those is a Kodak camera. Amie takes a picture of Mr. Tomanski, a reclusive Polish immigrant who lives on the family estate. The mysterious old man once saved Amie's father from death, but he can be strange and frightening. The Bellas use him as a bogey man, but Amie has seen him with his doves and knows he has a gentler side. When the family dog is killed, the Bellas have good reason to believe Mr. Tomanski is to blame. For Amen, the issue is more poignant, more complex. The events of the story, which occasionally seem abruptly handled, are secondary to the mood Byars creates in short, short chapters in which every word is important. Amie's own love of words is central to the story, and the word pictures, both Byars' and Amie's, are so light they almost float--like the doves Mr. Tomanski lets loose in the air. Ilene Cooper.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Byars (Summer of the Swans) organizes this jewel-like novel into 26 brief chapters, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet, and often resting upon a single image. Amen ("Amie") McBee, born in 1891 and the fifth daughter of a fragile mother and a father who ardently wishes for a son, searches for her place in the family and discovers a talent of her own. Even before Amie, who narrates, pens her first poem at age six, she shows signs of a poet's sensibility. She admires her sister Augusta, who "knew more words than anyone in the world," and eloquently sums up her bitter aunt: "She seemed to see life as a narrow and dangerous cliff, with charmed objects and correct action all there was to keep you from falling over the edge." Amie grows fascinated with the enigmatic Mr. Tominski, who tends the doves behind the nearby chapel. A seemingly harmless game of hide-and-seek that Amie plays with her devious twin sisters (Arabella and Annabella, dubbed "the Bellas"), in which the person being "it" pretends to be the feared Mr. Tominski, prompts their father to explain the man's importance to him. In tightly constructed scenes such as this, the author slowly and fluidly unspools the small revelations that aid in Amie's understanding of the world around her. With the arrival of Amie's grandmother (to assist with Amie's mother's pregnancy), the girl begins to blossom: Grandmama calls Amie a "wordsmith" and dispels her fears about Mr. Tominski, unveiling him as a "dove magician." The woman also gives each granddaughter a camera, and the subjects of their photographs reveal much about who they are. Amie, after photographing the lamb on the gravestone of her sister, Anita, who died at 10 days old, discovers Mr. Tominski behind her and photographs him, in what turns out to be a prophetic encounter. Byars effortlessly links subtle images into a cycle of life a death comes closely on the heels of the birth of Amie's brother, Adam; an early chapter in which three-year-old Amie names the parts of their dog reverberates at the novel's close, when two-year-old Adam recites the parts of the gravestone lamb. The snippets of Amie's and her family's lives add up to an exquisitely complete picture. Ages 8-12. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Gr 3-6-In 26 short chapters, this well-formed, introspective novel chronicles Amie McBee's life from her birth in 1891 until a pivotal summer eight years later. Throughout her childhood the awful Bellas, her older twin sisters, tell scary stories and make fun of the mysterious Mr. Tominski, who saved their father's life and, in return, is allowed to live in the old chapel behind the house. But Amie, a bright, observant child, is convinced that the "Keeper of the Doves" is no more than a harmless, gentle recluse. In a memorable scene, she and her grandmother secretly observe Mr. Tominski with his birds, and her grandmother says, "The man is a dove magician." Byars has a gift for writing dialogue, and here she uses a spare, almost poetic style to craft an accessible story that grapples with life-altering issues. And because Amie is an aspiring poet, the story is also about the creative process, with examples of her poetry woven into the text. The thematic elements interplay in perfect symmetry; when older sister Augusta recites the names of garden flowers in alphabetical order, she echoes the alphabet structure of the chapters. All of the characters are vividly portrayed, from feisty and frank Grandmama to stern Aunt Pauline, who has a "deep respect for bad luck." Even the awful Bellas provide some comic relief while revealing just how malicious human nature can be. The effective foreshadowing of a death provides dramatic tension throughout the narrative, and the surprising climax presents provocative questions about judging others and the nature of truth.-Caroline Ward, The Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. "Yes!" "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--" "Amen!" 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. "Chin." "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. "What?" "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! "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. Excerpted from Keeper of the Doves by Betsy Byars All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.