Two women work together to create a fictionalized account of one of the most fascinating collaborations of the Civil War. 

Spies in Hoop Skirts

It all started on a September afternoon when Mary Lyons, well-known children's author, called Muriel Branch to see if she'd like to collaborate on a story about two Union spies. Lyons had heard about the two real-life characters Elizabeth Van Lew and Liza Bowser from a colleague and later learned parts of Van Lew's diary and scrapbook actually remained.

Van Lew was an abolitionist from a wealthy, white Richmond family; Bowser was the young African-American daughter of two of Van Lew's freed slaves. Bowser posed as a slave in Jefferson Davis' White House, all the while spying on the Confederate president.

No one had to tell Lyons this was a story begging to be told.

Branch, an author of several books on lesser-known African-Americans, was excited yet wary when she received Lyons' call. The timing couldn't have been worse. She had always been impressed by Lyons' deep commitment to writing about black culture even though she is white, yet Branch was inundated.

She worked full time as a media specialist at Thompson Middle School and was considering taking early retirement. More seriously, her husband had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

There was a long, slow whisper from Muriel Branch's past and therefore, this great granddaughter of a slave named Liza (no relation to Bowser), signed on to write the book.

"This project," she says, "called for two different voices, a black one and a white one. We're both Southern, we're both women, both educated, but we have different ethnic backgrounds which color any story."

Branch and Lyons received a grant from The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and three years later - after lots of research, travel, rewrites and tears for the emotionally draining sections — they created a fictionalized account of two of the most interesting lives in Civil War Richmond.

"Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies" (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) arrives in local bookstores in September.

"Dear Ellen Bee" (the title is the code name the spies used) is a collage of the lives of Van Lew and Bowser and the times around them.

Using a scrapbook format similar to those kept by the women of the 19th century, their story begins with a letter from Miss Bet (Van Lew) to 10-year-old Liza Bowser giving her a scrapbook for her birthday. The reader also learns Miss Bet is offering Bowser emancipation papers and money for a train ticket to Philadelphia where she will attend the Quaker School for Free Negroes, the latter not exactly pleasing the feisty little girl.

Throughout the book, Liza battles and rebels against her bossy benefactress as she grows up, even quitting school to come home and marry. After the war breaks out, she accepts Miss Bet's plea to help spy against the Confederacy by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. There were several close calls, but neither was ever caught.

Throughout the scrapbook, there are letters and journal entries, train tickets, sketches of dreamed-for dresses, report cards and a marriage license — each reflecting the rise of the Confederacy. Then, a gradual downturn — an announcement of John Brown's death, a newspaper clipping proclaiming secession, a sketch of a prison, a photo of a leg amputation, death and hunger, Richmond in flames.

How much do the authors reflect the women they've written about? Branch is more reticent and says, "The reader will have to determine that," but "these women are our alter egos. Neither minded taking risks.

"They can be stubborn at times, very frank, both are loyal. They believed in causes to the end. Give us a cause and we're gone."

Lyons, who lives in Charlottesville and is married to the owner of a rare-book store, is more matter of fact. "I'm Miss Bet and Liza. It's hard to say where one starts and the other ends."

During the writing of "Dear Ellen Bee," both authors, who are former teachers and librarians, learned as much about each other's cultures as that of their heroines.

Lyons, born in Macon, Ga., to a peripatetic family always in search of work, taught her friend about growing up poor Irish in the South.

This hit a particularly respondent chord with Branch: Not only was she from a poor farming family in Cartersville, but her great grandfather had married an Irish woman at great cost — the marriage was neither accepted nor recorded.

Branch says her close friendship with Lyons has helped her find a piece of her past. "Knowing Mary's parents and foreparents had the same experiences as my family, maybe that will answer some of my questions [about my Irish roots]."

The two say they may work on a project on their common Irish roots.

Lyons, in spite of writing prolifically on black culture (she is probably best known for "Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs"), came away from the project with a better feeling for what it's like to be African-American. "The Confederacy is choking in Richmond," she says, and points out that while working on the book, the authors actually experienced a few incidents of "prejudice in its purest form."

There was the tour guide who followed them into a church and harangued them about slavery, claiming there hadn't really been many slaves in Richmond. The tour guide was so aggressive that Lyons and Branch left the church. Then there was the fellow writer at the retreat who was visibly bothered by the women's collaboration and friendship, asking questions like how the women met and why Lyons would want to work with Branch.

Such tales of modern-day prejudice make the message of "Dear Ellen Bee" even more pressing — that people can work together to bring about change, regardless of race or religious affiliation.

At the end of "Dear Ellen Bee," there is a grainy black-and-white photo of an elderly Elizabeth Van Lew sitting on a wrought-iron bench outside the grandly columned portico of her mansion. The war has ended, she has lost all her money, her social prestige, her friends. She has never married because a long ago fiancé couldn't bear her abolitionist leanings, left to fight for the cause and was killed. Nevertheless, Miss Bet still smiles in the photo, a soft bright gleam in her glance. Sept. 25 is the 100th anniversary of her death. She is buried in Shockoe Cemetery in a grave paid for by friends from Massachusetts. As a final statement on what exactly the city of Richmond thought of her life's work and contributions, the Van Lew mansion was razed in 1913.

It is now the site of the Bellevue Elementary School on Grace Street, surely a poetic

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