Read The Ballad of Lucy Whipple Online

Authors: Karen Cushman

Tags: #Young Adult Fiction, #General, #Juvenile Fiction

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

BOOK: The Ballad of Lucy Whipple
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents






















Author's Note

About the Author

Clarion Books
a Houghton Mifflin Company imprint
215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003
Copyright © 1996 by Karen Cushman

The text is set in 13/18-point Horley oldstyle.

Title calligraphy by Iskra.

All rights reserved.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.

For information about this and other Houghton Mifflin trade and reference books and multimedia products, visit The Bookstore at Houghton Mifflin on the World Wide Web at (

Printed in the USA

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cushman, Karen.
The ballad of Lucy Whipple / by Karen Cushman.

p. cm.

Summary: In 1849, a twelve-year-old girl who calls herself Lucy is distraught when her mother moves the family from Massachusetts to a small California mining town, where Lucy helps run a rough boarding house and looks for comfort in books
while trying to find a way to get "home."

ISBN 0-395-72806-1

[1. Frontier and pioneer life—California—Fiction.
2. Family life—California—Fiction. 3. California—
Gold discoveries—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.C962Bal 1996
[Fic]—dc20 95-45257

10 9 8

For my parents, Arthur and Loretta Lipski,
who brought me west,
and for Phyllis



In which I come to California fall down a hill,
and vow to be miserable here


"Mama," I said, "that gold you claimed is lying in the fields around here must be hidden by all the lizards, dead leaves, and mule droppings, for I can't see a thing worth picking up and taking home." I did not say it out loud, but I sorely wanted to, for I was sad, mad, and feeling bad. The rocking wagon had upset my stomach, my bottom hurt from bouncing on the wooden seat, and my head ached from too much sun and too much emotion.

It was a hot day in late August, and nothing was moving in the heat but the flies, when our wagon pulled out of the woods and stopped at the edge of the ravine Dense evergreens towered above us, the hillsides so dark with them the mountains seemed almost black, while over all the fierce yellow sun burned in the blue bowl of the sky. All was silent, with an impression of immensity. Later, folks would call it majestic, noble, imposing, magnificent. But not me.

"Awful," I said, climbing out of the wagon. "Just awful." And I thought with longing of snug spaces, of tree limbs that touched the ground and enclosed safe places within, of the big chair in Gramma Whipple's parlor cozy with the curtains pulled around, of the solidity of Grampop's strong arms and rock walls and houses with porches.

"California Morning Whipple, quit your mooning and come here and help me," Mama called, so I wiped my sunburned face with the back of my hand and went to help.

We woke up the little ones and they, along with the mule and the loaded wagon, were pushed and pulled down the narrow ravine path to the bottom. Sierra, being only two, fell once or twice, so Butte, acting grown-up now he was ten, put her on his shoulders and continued pulling back on the wagon so it didn't move too fast. I fell too, but since there was no one to help me, I brushed the dust off my apron and took to skittering down again with Sweetheart, the mule, beside me.

Finally, in a burst, we skidded down the last feet of the trail to a stop. Everyone, including Sweetheart, was hot and sweaty and dirty. Everyone,
Sweetheart, was tired and hungry and glad to be done.

Mama and I stood and looked at the settlement along the river. The air, heavy with heat and dust, burned my nose and stung my eyes.

"Oh, my, look at this place, California," Mama said.

I looked. The ground was sunburned and barren except for patches of scrub here and there. Small tents, shacks, and brush-covered lean-tos huddled along one bank of the river. On the dirt path that served as the only street, several large, tattered tents shifted in the wind. The biggest had
painted across its front—
, I figured, spelled wrong but people seemed to have gotten the meaning all right, judging from the noise inside. The hot wind howled; the tents flapped and creaked; thick dust mixed with the smoke from a hundred cook fires, tinted red by the setting sun. Surely Hell was not far away.

I took Mama's hand. We'd go home now, of course. How disappointed she must be.

Mama and Pa had long dreamed of going west, even to naming their family for western places: me, the first, California Morning Whipple; then Butte, Prairie, Sierra, Golden Promise, the lost baby Ocean, and Rocky Flat, the dog.

When Pa and Golden died of pneumonia the autumn of 1848, people told Mama, "You got to stop dreaming, Arvella, settle down, and take care of them kids." But Mama was not one to listen to what she didn't want to hear—mule stubborn, her own pa used to call her. After grieving for a spell over what was lost, she took a deep breath and started to look toward what was to come. Butte, Prairie, and Sierra were caught up in her excitement, but for weeks I lived in fear of what Mama would do, for our small Massachusetts town fitted her like a shoe two sizes too small. At night I had dreams of fierce storms that blew us to desert islands, of whirlwinds and whirlpools, of great sea monsters that swallowed the whole Whipple family, including Rocky Flat.

Mama had no patience with what she called my wobblies. She sold the house and stable and feed store, gave the dog to Harold Thatcher at the mill, packed us up like barrels of lard, and in the spring took us on a ship with raggedy sails to seek our fortune in the goldfields of California.

When we arrived near broke in the mud and garbage that was the Bay of San Francisco, Minnie Oates, who had come from Connecticut to fetch her husband, said, "Face facts, Arvella. My hogs lived better than this. You best come back east with us." But Mama wasn't going back. We lived on that idle ship for eight more days, its captain and crew having abandoned it for the goldfields, while Mama stalked through San Francisco in her black dress, new flowered hat on her head and a copy of
The Emigrant's Guide to the Gold Mines (25 cents, \2\ cents without the map)
tucked in her reticule, talking to everyone who would talk back and finally getting herself a job running a boarding house in a mining town. We took a steamer to Sacramento and then to Marysville, where she bundled up us kids in a wagon, bargained a shopkeeper her copper pot from Gramma Whipple for a mule, and trudged three days through country jagged with hills and mountains, peaks and valleys, blazing sunshine and cold sharp nights.

All along the way I watched for the gold lying on the ground, the fruit hanging from the trees, the magical possibilities that Mama said awaited us in California. I saw nothing but evergreens, dirt, and sun—hardly even another human being except for some Indian women grinding acorns by the side of the road. They looked up as we passed, and their tattooed faces frightened me so that I spent the rest of the journey under my old sunflower quilt, crying for my pa and my home and all that was dear to me. And that's how we came to Lucky Diggins, after six months on ship and steamer and wagon, with everything we owned in two horsehair trunks and a straw basket formerly used to carry chickens in.

And here we were. Mama sighed. "Look at this place," she said again. "Ain't it grand?"

"Oh, Mama. Grand?" It looked to me like the wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the Devil. "You said we'd find our fortunes, but I don't see any gold. Only rocks and holes and lizards."

"Look around, California," Mama said. "Look at the color of the grass, the light trapped in the cracks of the mountains, the sun setting over the peaks. There's gold all around us if you just look."

"Mama, I
looking. I'm looking for the school, the library, the
Mama, I want to go home."

Mama looked up at the big trees and the mountains and the clear blue sky and smiled. "We
home, and we are going to be happy here."

I looked down at the dirt. Happy? Towed like a barge around two continents? With no Gram or Grampop? No friends, no school, no big bedroom with Gramma Whipple's quilts on the bed and an apple tree old as Moses outside the window? Happy? Not on your life.


Dear Gram and Grampop,

Well, we are here, me having puked my way down the east coast of the States, around the entire continent of South America, and up the west coast to California. Your daughter Arvella and Butte and the babies had what the sailors called sea legs and were all over that ship. All I saw for five months was the bottom of the bunk above me. I have got very skinny. Butte says I look like a stewed witch.

Mama got herself a job running a boarding house for Mr. Scatter, who owns the saloon and the general store here in Lucky Diggins. He said he was peddling whiskey from a wagon and this is where the mule died so this is where he stayed. The boarding house is a tent. So are the saloon and the general store. I think if you
die here and go to Heaven, it too is a tent. Only bigger.

Lucky Diggins isn't much of a town—just tents and rocks and wind. Besides Mr. Scatter, his grown daughter, Belle, and ourselves, the only inhabitants seem to be prospectors with loud voices and dirty faces, porcupines and grizzly bears, lizards, snakes, and birds. The weather is very hot and it doesn't seem like almost autumn. There are no red or orange leaves. In fact, except for the needles of the evergreens, there are almost no leaves at all. Mr. Scatter says California trees lose their leaves early because summer is so dry and hot. I think they have all fallen off and blown to Massachusetts. That is what I would like to do.

There is no school and no lending library, no bank, no church, no meetinghouse, no newspaper, no shopping or parties or picnics, no eggs, no milk, and, worst of all, no Gram and Grampop. I miss you very much, Gram's hugs and Indian pudding with fresh cream, Grampop's laugh like a locomotive starting up. I could come home and live with you, couldn't I, and sleep in the room where Mama grew up? Please write and say yes.

I am now twelve. Yesterday was my birthday but no one remembered, not even me.

Your loving granddaughter,
California Morning Whipple,
formerly of Buttonfields,
Massachusetts, and now an
involuntary citizen of
Lucky Diggins, California



In which we settle in and I decide to change my name


The day was hot and still, and I was hiding from Mama, which was not easy to do in a place that was just two tents lashed together. Finally I ran outside to the privy, small and cramped and smelling something awful in the hot sun, but it was private.

Sitting on the splintery plank seat, I cried from homesickness and desperate longing for Pa, for Golden buried in the Massachusetts dirt, for Gramma Whipple dead last year and Grandpa Whipple gone before I ever knew him, for the reluctant Rocky Flat dragged away by Mr. Thatcher, for Gram and Grampop, whom I could still see waving red handkerchiefs as the ship pulled out of Boston Harbor. I had yet to mourn for picket fences and ice cream socials and the very thought of living in this unfamiliar, unloved, intolerable wilderness, when I heard Mama.

"California, where the Sam Hill have you got to? California!"

I could see her feet under the privy door and held my breath until they had passed. California: What an unfortunate name. No one in any book I ever read was called California. I never paid much attention to my name back home, because there it was just a name, like Patience or Angus or Etta Mae. But in California it was not just a name. It was a place, a passion, a promise. It was a name that caused people to notice me, talk to me, remember and expect things. It was in no way the right name for me.

BOOK: The Ballad of Lucy Whipple
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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