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Betsy and the Emperor    by Staton Rabin order for
Betsy and the Emperor
by Staton Rabin
Order:  USA  Can
Margaret K. McElderry, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Though fiction, Betsy and the Emperor is based on historical events. After Napoleon Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo, he was imprisoned on the island of St. Helena. The Balcombe family was chosen to quarter Bonaparte and his entourage at their 'Briar' property. English Admiral Cockburn informed the Balcombes that their home would be engaged for only a short time, until a 'proper place' was found in St. Helena for Bonaparte's final confinement.

Fourteen-year old Betsy Balcombe (the narrator) befriends the deposed Emperor. She stands up to the 'feared' Bonaparte, exchanging banter, humor, and diatribes. She shares these thoughts in an introductory scene, 'Bonaparte ... stood ... hands folded behind his back. My brothers and sister seemed unsure of whether to expect an inspection or a firing squad.' Within a short time, the Balcombe household comes to care for and respect Bonaparte. Napoleon exchanges stories of his life, battles, and accomplishments with Betsy. He reveals his 'autobiography', which is not on paper, but on 'Sevres plates from the Tuileries'. The plates portray the Battle of Austerlitz, his beloved Josephine, his imprisoned son, the boy's mother, Marie-Louise, and 'The Code Napoleon'.

Betsy introduces 'Boney' (as she is allowed to call him) to her scientist friend Huff, who is also tutor to her siblings. Huff's laboratory and books are located in a cavern. Later, Huff approaches Betsy with a scheme to aid Bonaparte's escape to France via a hot-air balloon fashioned out of silk dresses. When they take the balloon for a trial run, Betsy feels 'as if I'd left my body on the ground and my soul was now free to sail among the stars ... Was this the complete freedom I had been seeking all my life?' Unfortunately, Admiral Cockburn is replaced by Sir Hudson Lowe, who is ruthless in his treatment of the deposed Emperor. The time for the removal of Bonaparte from Betsy's home comes too quickly. The Emperor and staff are exiled to desolate, barely habitable Longwood. The day of departure is painfully emotional. 'You must not cry, Mademoiselle Betsy', says Napoleon. Visits to Longwood become more difficult as time passes, with harsh rulings from Hudson Lowe.

Included at the back of the book are references and websites on topics such as The Code Napoleon and The National Anthem of France. The real Betsy Balcombe (married name Abell) knew Emperor Bonaparte during the 1800's, in the early years of his captivity. In 1844 Betsy penned an autobiography, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon During the First Three Years of Captivity. Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821, was buried on St. Helena, and two decades later was reburied in Paris. Betsy and the Emperor is an engaging, well written, tender tale, and a must read for anyone interested in Napoleon Bonaparte.

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