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Nicki Ehrlich
Ellis River
The Civil War scattered her family and now, along with her beloved horse, a young woman must travel across a war-torn country to collect what’s left of her life. The only home she’s every known is destroyed as the last of the family’s horses are requisitioned. But one headstrong mare returns. Disguised as a boy, for safety and comfort, Ellis Cady rides off to find her twin brother. Though war refuses to fade, Ellis stumbles upon an unlikely group of rescuers who teach her family is more than blood, and love has no limits.

Semi Finalist

Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 10 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 10.00 out of 10


Plot/Idea: Ellis River is a moving story of determination and grit that will captivate readers. Ehrlich is a skillful guide, transporting readers through Ellis's twists and turns, unexpected challenges, and celebrations alike.

Prose: Ehrlich is a gifted, masterful writer, and this is a beautifully composed work. Although not done in verse, the prose is soothing and almost lyrical at times. 

Originality: Ellis River is exceptionally unique, with a memorable hero and distinctive plot that will imprint on readers' memories.

Character Development/Execution: Ellis is an affable hero, and her situation will soften even the the most hard-hearted readers. She comes alive in her actions and dialogue, and the others she encounters on her journey are well defined, with fully realized character arcs.

Date Submitted: August 17, 2022

As Ehrlich’s vivid historical coming-of-age novel opens, the American Civil War is winding down, but trouble still stalks the family of fifteen-year-old Ellis River Cady. Two years earlier, her father and oldest brother left their small Quaker community in western Tennessee to sell horses to the army, but they never returned. Ellis’s twin brother, Earl, sets off to look for them, and soon afterwards their mother falls ill and dies. Dressed in men’s clothing, Ellis strikes out on her beloved mare to find Earl. The war ends while she’s on the road, but she quickly learns that “doesn’t mean the fighting’s stopped.” As Ellis learns to defend herself, she takes up with a group of freed Blacks who become a surrogate family as she searches for her kin.

Ellis River teems with well-drawn characters and vibrant wilderness settings. A memorable proto-feminist protagonist, Ellis strives not just to reunite her family but to carve out a meaningful life. She dresses as a man for convenience and safety, finding riding easier, understanding that men enjoy greater freedom, and recognizing that, this way, “another life might be rolled out for her.” Touchingly, she notes “I feel more comfortable, more…natural.” Other characters play strong secondary roles, especially Libby, the Black Native American woman who becomes a role model, and Billie, Ellis’s feisty horse. While the search and these issues of identity resonate, the plot is quiet and unhurried.

Ever since her mother gave her a leather-bound notebook, Ellis has kept a diary, and she relates some of the story through her journal entries and letters to her father. This leads to some unneeded exposition and repetition, as when Ellis summarizes in epistolary form what readers have already witnessed, but also lays bare the character’s heart and showcases Ehrlich’s sure-handed period language as she brings life to perspectives too often unexplored in narratives of the era, with empathy, insight, a touch of romance, and a suggestion of a sexual awakening near the end.

Takeaway:As the Civil War ends, a young woman and her horse leave home in search of missing family.

Great for fans of: Robin Oliveira, Charles Frazier.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A