Keeper of the Doves

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by Betsy Byars. Novel. 128 pages. Grades 4-7.
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Review

cover art

Betsy Byars' book Keeper of the Doves is the deceptively simple story of one turn of the century family during one summer in Kentucky. Accessible to kids from fourth grade up, it speaks gently but packs a punch. The story revolves around words and their power to wound as well as heal. Chapters in alphabetical order carry the reader through this story. And there is an alphabet of invisible flowers within the book to accent that motif.

All of the children have names beginning with A. The father's name is Albert. Their mother, Lily, spends most of the time in her room, distant in fact as well as in effect, and, of course, she has a name that begins with a different letter. The sisters are all very different, sharing only their dislike of Aunt Pauline who is in charge of them most of the time.

There are six sisters in the McBee family. The youngest sister, Amen, called Amie, is our narrator. In love with words, she writes poems in order to make sense of and to commemorate the world around her. Neither she nor any of the sisters seem to resent the fact that their father desperately wanted a son. He is known to have wept bitter tears at the birth of Amen. He weeps again -- tears of joy this time -- when at last his son Adam is born.

The indistinguishable twins, Arabella and Annabella, are grouped together at all times by a single name, The Bellas. They delight in terrifying Amie with their stories and often cruel games. Many of their games and stories concern Mr. Tominsky, a mysterious man who lives in a chapel at the back of the estate. The tale is dominated by that man who is largely off-stage. He's the Keeper of the Doves.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • The very first words in the story are Mr. McBee's. "Another girl? Not another girl? Don't tell me I've got another daughter!" What do you think about that? Do you blame him? How would they make you feel if you were one of the daughters? If you were Adam?

  • Amie is a poet and some members of the family honor her poetry while others ridicule it.

  • The alphabet is used to introduce the chapters and that motif is repeated within the story.

  • Is there a moral to this story? What might it be?

  • The McBees are a wealthy and privileged family. What things in their life would change if they were not?

  • The story takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century, what would change if it were set at the turn of the twentieth?

  • At one point in the story Amie says, "As long as there are words, nobody need ever die."

  • There's little doubt that Mr. Tominski is a tragic figure in the story. Is there anyone else you consider tragic?

  • If you had to place each character in the book on a list of positive or negative characters, which ones would go where?

  • Grandmother's gift of the cameras changes things. How? What does each girl's choice of subject for her pictures show about her?

  • If Mr. McBee's first name had been Bradford, what might the children have been named?
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Activities

  • Aunt Pauline and the cook have many superstitions. Add to their list of superstitions. Do any of them have any basis in fact?

  • Find other characters in books who, like Mr. Tominsky, seem to live around the edges of the lives of others. (See list.) Look for the reasons why they are isolated and the reaction of others: Are they feared? Ignored? Hated?

  • Look around you at the people who matter in your life. If you had a camera and could use it well, what would you capture those people doing that would show the most about them? Do it.
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Related Books

  • Bunting, Eve. The Man Who Could Call Down Owls. Illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak. Bound to Stay Bound, 1999 ISBN 0785755446. Order Info.
    The man who could call them, and heal them, is undone by an evil stranger who steals his cloak and wand.

  • Lester, Helen. Tacky the Penguin. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton, 1990 ISBN 0395562333. Order Info.
    This funny book has a more serious point, the isolation and fear of those who are different.

  • McElligott, Matthew. Uncle Frank's Pit. Viking, 1998 ISBN 0670877379. Order Info.
    Uncle Frank's determination to find dinosaur bones in the backyard causes him to retreat more and more into the pit for all comforts.

  • Myers, Christopher. Wings. Scholastic, 2000 ISBN 0590033778. Order Info
    Ikarus Jackson's ability to fly over the neighborhood causes, not admiration, but fear and disdain and eventual expulsion.

  • Yashima, Taro. Crow Boy. Viking, 1955 ISBN 0670249319. Order Info.
    Chibi is an outcast, reviled by his schoolmates for his differences.

  • Almond, David. Kit's Wilderness Delacorte, 2000 ISBN 0385326653.Order Info.
    Kit is the newcomer in the old English coal-mining village where he finds his own name on a gravestone and becomes involved in the frightening game of Death as played by the village children.

  • Almond, David. Skellig. Laureleaf, 2001 ISBN 0440229081. Order Info.
    Skellig's very definition is hard to come by. Is he a man? An owl? An angel? Some combination of all three? Whatever and whoever Skellig is, he haunts Michael who already has enough to worry about. Read More

  • Burch, Robert. Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain. Avon, 1982 ISBN 0380570912. Order Info.
    Ida is an irrepressibly cheerful character until her difference causes ridicule by the people she cares most about. Read More.

  • Kindl, Patrice. The Woman in the Wall. (Puffin, 1997 ISBN 0141301244. Order Info.
    The retreat here by Anna is literal as well as figurative as her shyness and difference becomes too much for life outside the wall.

  • Lowry, Lois. Silent Boy. (Houghton, 2003)
    This book, which will be released in Spring of 2003, has many parallels to Keeper of the Doves.

  • Paulsen, Gary. Foxman. Puffin, 1990 ISBN 0140343113. Order Info.
    The badly scarred Foxman lives in isolation outside of town, his face so hideous that he hides it even from the boys who eventually befriend him. Read More.

  • Peck, Richard. Fair Weather. Dial, 2001 ISBN 0803725167. Order Info.
    The isolate here is Euterpe, aunt of the main characters, who is so fearful that she has retreated from the exciting world around her.

  • Stotts, Stuart. Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin (Big Valley Press, 2005 ISBN 0976537206. Order Info.
    A quiet fictionalized biography about the work of Lutie Stearns in bringing boxed sets of books which circulated from town to town around the turn of the century providing the first free libraries many communities had ever had access to. A good nonfiction companion to novels and picture books set in this time period. Read More.
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