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Book Review

Toliver's Secret by Esther Wood Brady has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

After her father dies in the Revolutionary War, 10-year-old Ellen Toliver and her mother move to New York to live with Grandfather. Grandfather is a wigmaker, and as Ellen learns by mistake, a patriot spy. He has Ellen's mother bake a snuff box containing a message for George Washington into a loaf of bread. The bread will have to change hands several times before it gets to Washington, so Grandfather must deliver it quickly to his contact, Mr. Shannon. But when Grandfather hurts his leg, he realizes he will be unable to cross the river to New Jersey and get the bread to Mr. Shannon's Jolly Fox Tavern. He asks Ellen to make the delivery in his place.

Before moving to Grandfather's town, Ellen has lived a quiet life. In New York, she's afraid of many things, such as the Redcoats and a girl named Dicey who bullies her at the neighborhood water pump. Ellen isn't convinced she can handle Grandfather's request. But he reminds her that people overcome fear by doing things they think they can't.

Despite Mother's concerns, Ellen agrees to carry the message in the bread. Mother dresses her in clothes that belonged to her older brother, Ezra, who may or may not be alive somewhere on the battlefield. Mother also cuts Ellen's hair so she looks like a boy. Grandfather instructs her to catch a ride across the river to Elizabethtown with an oysterman. There she should have no trouble finding the Jolly Fox. She's to deliver the loaf of bread to Mr. Shannon only, telling him it is a birthday present. The task will be simple enough, Grandfather assures her. The Shannons will care for her and help her get on a boat home the next morning.

But even before Ellen leaves the city, two boys steal and play keep-away with her loaf of bread. In her first act of bravery, she fights off the boys and retrieves the loaf. When she arrives at the harbor, no oyster or fishing boats remain. A Redcoat pulls her aboard their boat, hoping to get a taste of the fresh bread. Ellen protects her bread from the soldier while another, with a son about her age, befriends her.

When Ellen finally reaches land, she discovers she's ended up in the wrong city. Elizabethtown is several miles away. She has money, but she can't hire a stagecoach because the British have taken them. Ellen battles within herself and finally decides she must walk. A man on horseback named Mr. Murdock gives her a ride to his home and says he will take her the remaining half mile after dinner. His wife, seeing Ellen's wet clothes, tries to get her out of her britches. Ellen is afraid of being found out as a girl and flees the house. She rescues her soggy loaf from the Murdocks' pig on the way out.

Ellen finally reaches the Jolly Fox and delivers the bread. Mr. Shannon's wife is the first person to recognize her as female, and the two joke about how they're fooling the British. Ellen returns home the next day a much braver soul. She's even able to stand up to Dicey at the water pump. She learns that her brother Ezra is alive and well, and she receives a silver locket as a thank you for helping Gen. Washington.

Christian Beliefs

As she walks to Elizabethtown in the dark, Ellen encourages herself with the words, I shall walk and not grow weary. I shall run and not faint. The words make her feel better as she thinks of Grandfather reading them from his Dutch Psalm Book. She's encouraged by how firmly he believes the words. Her mother says things like, "Only the Lord knows" and "God bless you."

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Grandfather is loving toward Ellen, but determined to help her act courageously, regardless of how intimidated she feels. He is confident of her courage, though she isn't, to involve her in a mission that could get him hanged if they are caught. Mother is attentive and concerned for her daughter's safety but ultimately allows Ellen to help her grandfather. Most of the British soldiers are rude, pompous thieves, according to the colonists. However Higgins, whom Ellen meets on the boat to Elizabethtown, is kind, honest and protective of her.





Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments/Notes

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

8 to 12


Esther Wood Brady






Record Label



Yearling, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc.


On Video

Year Published





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