Betsy and the Emperor

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About The Book

"Think, my dear -- just think what it will be like, to be known as the girl who freed the great Napoleon Bonaparte!"

Fourteen-year-old English girl Betsy Balcombe and her family have an unusual houseguest: Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France and the most feared man on earth. Once lord and master to eighty-two million souls, now, in 1815, Napoleon is a captive of the British people. Stripped of his empire and robbed of his young family and freedom, he is confined to the forbidding, rat-infested island of St. Helena.

The one bright star in Napoleon's black sky is Betsy, a blazingly rebellious teenager whose family is reluctantly housing the notorious prisoner. Betsy is the only foreigner Napoleon's ever met who is not impressed by him -- and Napoleon is more than intrigued.

An unexpected alliance is formed. And a remarkable friendship between emperor and girl spawns gossip, and inspires Betsy to hatch a daring and dangerous scheme that could threaten both their lives and shake entire empires to their foundations.

Excerpt
Chapter One

I opened my bedroom window and inhaled -- deeply, joyfully. That familiar, intoxicating odor: night on St. Helena. The sickly-sweet smell of guava and roses hung in the air like ether, just as I'd remembered it. Who would have thought I'd be so glad to return to the place my father and his navy comrades called "Hell in the South Atlantic"?

It was the autumn of 1815. I had been home again at the Briars just three days, from Hawthorne Boarding School in London. I'd shocked my parents by not misbehaving once since my return to St. Helena. Perhaps they believed the knuckle-rapping, head-thumping headmistress of Hawthorne had finally knocked some sense into their younger daughter. I began to wonder it myself. Blast! Had I lost my sense of adventure? Would I go soft and ladylike and marry some vain, boot-polished officer of the Fifty-fourth Regiment or His Majesty's Navy -- as my sister Jane hoped to do?

Just then two booms of the cannon from the port at Jamestown -- the signal for a ship's arrival -- broke the stillness. And I knew I remained the Betsy Balcombe of yore. Older, yes. Wiser, perhaps. But never, never willing to settle for a life that's "Tedious-as-Hell in the South Atlantic"!

I threw on my bed jacket and grabbed hold of my ladder -- the vine that had, over the years, crept bravely up the red brick walls of the Briars and to the very edge of my windowsill. It was many a night that the vine had been my ladder to adventure. Thank heaven Toby hadn't trimmed it back during my long absence!

I slipped a little as I climbed out the window, and Jane woke with a start. She gave a quiet, girlish scream. I looked over at her, and she was sitting up in her white lacy canopy bed, the covers pulled tight under her chin. I had one leg out the window. My sister glared at me, stern as the headmistress of Hawthorne.

"I'll tell...," Jane threatened coolly.

"Still the little tattler," I said, shaking my head. Jane was sixteen -- two years older than I; old enough to keep secrets.

"You're going into Jamestown, aren't you?"

"Go back to sleep, Jane. If you don't, you'll make your eyes all puffy and you'll turn ugly so none of the young officers will want to marry you."

"Betsy!"

"Good night, Jane."

It was too late for her to stop me. I was already out the window and halfway down the vine. Jane would never think of spoiling her pretty hands by attempting to climb down after me.

I jumped the last few feet to the ground. Then I peered around the corner of the Briars to see who was about. Most of our slaves had already returned to their cabins for the night. Most of the soldiers had turned in too, though there seemed to be a few more sentries on watch than usual.

I rounded the corner of the Briars and dashed to the moon-shaded side of the Pavilion veranda. Suddenly, I heard footsteps in the dank leaves nearby. I froze, listening, trying to quiet my winded breathing so it wouldn't betray me.

"Is me. Only me, missy."

Toby! I'd forgotten the old man liked to stroll by night in the gardens he tended by day. He liked to drink a bit of the island rum too. Not enough to get drunk, though. I breathed a sigh of relief.

"You go for the walk at night -- like old time, missy, yes?"

"Yes." I still couldn't see him, but I smelled the rum on his breath. I knew he'd be smiling broadly at me with those remarkably white teeth I used to think were a string of pearls from the seas off his native Haiti.

"Miss Jane with you?"

I laughed. "What do you think?"

"Didn't think yes, missy," he said, chuckling softly. "Didn't think yes."

Toby had been with my family for years and had seen Jane and me grow up. But I knew I was his favorite -- even more than the boys.

After a moment he whispered hoarsely: "Ship is here, in Jamestown. Do you know?"

"I heard the signal."

Toby fell silent. Then he sighed and whispered seriously: "All will be very different, St. Helena now. Everything soon change, missy, yes?"

I didn't know what Toby meant. He often said things that sounded mysterious. I knew the island slaves to be very superstitious, so I never took much notice.

"Your papa ask me to cut vines all over," he said with a chuckle. "I leave the one outside missy's window for you coming home."

So Toby knew how I'd escaped from my room at night, and he'd kept my secret! I'd always felt he was one of the few people who understood me.

"Thank you, Toby!"

"Hush!" he whispered. "You wake family all, no Jamestown, no ship to see for missy."

"Good night, Toby," I whispered back, and ran toward Jamestown.

Copyright © 2004 by Staton Rabin
Reading Group Guide
A Guide for Reading Groups
Betsy and the Emperor
By Staton Rabin
About the Book
"An engaging novel..." -New York Times Book Review
Based on true events, Betsy and the Emperor tells the story of fourteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe and her friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte. Once the emperor of France, now in 1815, Napoleon is a captive of the British people. During his confinement on St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic, Napoleon is made to live with the Balcombe family. Young Betsy is the only foreigner he has ever met who is not afraid of him, and Napoleon is intrigued. Rabin's story reveals new insights into the heart and mind of one of the most towering, fascinating historical figures of our time -- and tells a tale of hope and bravery that will inspire readers to their own heights of courage.

About the Author
Staton Rabin has a B.F.A. in film from New York University. In addition to writing for children, she is a screenwriter; a popular speaker about the art, craft, and business of writing for film; and a veteran story analyst for Scr(i)pt magazine, screenwriters, and producers. Staton Rabin lives in Irvington, New York.
Note: Betsy and the Emperor can be used by history teachers as a tool for teaching French and Napoleonic history. In addition, it may be used by English teachers to encourage reading followed by thoughtful reflection as well as providing ideas for writing exercises. As you use this guide, look for the (H) to denote questions of particular interest to history teachers and the (E) for English teachers.

Discussion Questions
  1. Why is Napoleon sent to St. Helena? What do you think it was like for Napoleon, the emperor of France, to be taken from Europe to a remote island and imprisoned in a private home? Do you think the imprisonment was fair? Support your answers with details from the story. (H)

  2. In what ways are Betsy and Napoleon similar? What draws them toward one another in friendship? Do you think that Betsy and Napoleon would have become friends if they had met while Napoleon was still in power? Explain your thinking. (E)

  3. What is Napoleon's public image? How is it different from what he is like in private? Give examples from the book.

  4. Betsy's father believes that "[no] girl should stay in school beyond the age of fourteen." Why does he believe this? What does he think a young woman should do at this age? What kind of future does he envision for Betsy? Is this realistic? Support your answers with examples from the text.

  5. Betsy and her brother's tutor, Huff, develop a plan to free Napoleon. What is the plan? If the plan were successful, what would it mean for Napoleon? How would it change the course of history? What effect would it have on Betsy and Huff? (H)

  6. Betsy describes St. Helena as a prison. Why does she feel this way? What does Betsy learn from Napoleon about the meaning of freedom?

  7. As the friendship between Napoleon and Betsy grows, rumors begin to circulate that they are having a romantic relationship. Is the speculation warranted? What reason do people have to suspect an affair? What do you think was the true nature of the relationship between Betsy and Napoleon? (E)

  8. Napoleon tells Betsy about his accomplishments as emperor. What were some positive effects of Napoleon's time in power? Conversely, what were some of the negative consequences of his rule? Think about how he might have been perceived differently in France than in Britain. (H)

  9. Some historians believe Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning. Betsy believes he died of a broken heart. What reason does she have to believe this? Do you think it is possible to die of a broken heart? Explain. What do you think caused Napoleon's death? (E) & (H)

  10. How does Betsy change over the course of the book? How does her relationship with Napoleon influence her personal development? How does it continue to influence Betsy in her adult life? Why was her relationship with Napoleon so powerful?

  11. Betsy and the Emperor is a work of historical fiction. What is historical fiction? What elements of Betsy and the Emperor are factual, and which are fictional? (See Rabin's Source Notes.) What responsibility do writers of historical fiction have to stay true to the facts? How much are writers "allowed" to make up? In your opinion, does the author accurately portray Napoleon's life and times? Explain. (E)


Activities & Research
  1. Separate fact from fiction. Organize a piece of chart paper into three columns. Label the first column "fact," the second column "fiction," and the third column "not sure." List details from Betsy and the Emperor and place them in what you believe to be the appropriate columns. (H)

  2. Learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte at the library and on the Web. Research Napoleon's rule so that you can understand the events that led to his exile. (H)

  3. Create a list of 5-10 questions that you would ask Betsy in an interview. Present these questions to a classmate who will take on the role of Betsy. Present the results of your interview in the form of a magazine or newspaper article. (E)

  4. Research U.S. history during the time of Napoleon's rule. For example, who was the U.S. president? How many states were there in the Union and what were they? What fashions were popular in the U.S. at the time? What kind of music were Americans listening to? (H)

  5. Locate St. Helena Island on a world map or in an atlas. Trace the journey from Great Britain to St. Helena. What land and water masses separate St. Helena from France? Use your knowledge of geography, politics, and history to create a series of journal entries that Napoleon might have written while on board the ship bound for St. Helena. (E) & (H)

  6. Use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the Code Napoleon with the U.S. Constitution. You can read more about the Code Napoleon at http://www.napoleonseries.org/reference/political/code.cfm.

  7. Napoleon finds a collection of plates on which key events of his life are depicted. What are some of the events that appear on these plates? On a paper plate, draw or paint a scene that depicts a key event that occurred during Napoleon's time on St. Helena. (H)

  8. In the Author's Note, Staton Rabin says that while writing Betsy and the Emperor she purposely avoided reading Betsy Balcombe's book, To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe's Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena, about her friendship with Napoleon. Why did Rabin choose not to read the book? What sources did Rabin use to write Betsy and the Emperor? Do you think Ms. Rabin's book would have been different had she read Betsy Balcombe's autobiography prior to writing her novel? Why or why not? After reading Betsy and the Emperor, read Betsy Balcombe's book and write a paper comparing the two novels. (E)

Betsy and the Emperor By Staton Rabin
ISBN-10: 0-689-85880-9
ISBN-13: 978-0-689-85880-2
Margaret K. McElderry Books
ISBN-10: 1-4169-1336-X
ISBN-13: 978-1-4169-1336-8
Simon Pulse
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing www.SimonSaysTEACH.com
This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
About The Author
Photograph © Eve Prime, poppy studio

Staton Rabin has a B.F.A. in film from New York University. In addition to writing for children, she is a screenwriter; a popular speaker about the art, craft, and business of writing for film; and a veteran story analyst for Scr(i)pt magazine, screenwriters, and producers. Staton Rabin lives in Irvington, New York.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Simon Pulse (April 2006)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416913368
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

"An interesting and intimate look at the life of one of history's most famous men."
-- School Library Journal

"Fascinating...."
-- Kirkus Reviews

Awards and Honors
  • NYPL Best Books for Teens
  • Westchester's Choice
  • Volunteer State Book Award Master List (TN)
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