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The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

3.6 11
by Karen Cushman

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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. There Lucy helps run a boarding house and looks for comfort in books while trying to find a way to return "home."


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. There Lucy helps run a boarding house and looks for comfort in books while trying to find a way to return "home."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
PW gave a starred review to this gold-rush novel by Newbery Medalist Cushman, calling it "a coming-of-age story rich with historical flavor." Ages 8-12. (May)
Children's Literature - Marilyn Courtot
In the summer, it is hot and dusty; the land is so parched that water has to be hauled to keep the vegetable garden from shriveling up. In the winter it is freezing cold with icicles hanging down from the tent after a freezing rain. That's the way it is in the gold fields of California where Lucy and her family are trying to find their own new lives after their Pa died. Lucy longs for Massachusetts, but her mother seems to thrive on the challenge offered by life in the West. Lots of interesting characters and descriptions of the hard life facing the miners and others whose livelihoods are part of the gold fever make for an amusing and informative look at California and the struggles of one girl to find herself and a place to call home.
Children's Literature - Jan Lieberman
The women of the gold rush were resourceful, hardworking, adventurous and unappreciated. Karen Cushman lets us experience the life of one family in The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Mrs Whipple, a widow, arrives in the shabby mining town of Lucky Diggins with her 4 children. To make ends meet, she opens a boarding house where her daily life is nothing but hard work and her only helper is her daughter Lucy, aka California, the eldest of the 4 children. Lucy, an avid reader, would rather spend time under a tree writing letters and reading. She is feisty, and obsessed with her dream of returning "home" to Massachusetts. But this is a ballad and like all ballads this will be read and reread to savor the moments of joy, sadness, humor, tenderness, and love in the life of the Whipples.
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8Following the death of Lucy's father, her mother moves her family from Massachusetts to the gold fields of California. Their home is now the rough-and-tumble gold-mining town of Lucky Diggins. Lucy feels distinctly out of place and longs for her grandparents and home. She tells of traveling west and settling down in this lonesome place, occasionally relating incidents through letters to her grandparents. She is a dreamy, bookish girl, not interested in the harsh life of the gold camps and California wilderness. Still, she makes unusual friends and has some adventures. Her brother, Butte, 11, dies; her mother works hard in a boarding house for miners and falls in love with a traveling evangelist. Lucy matures considerably over the course of the book, in the end choosing to remain in California rather than return to Massachusetts or follow her sisters, mother, and her mother's new husband to the Sandwich Islands. Cushman's heroine is a delightful character, and the historical setting is authentically portrayed. Lucy's story, as the author points out in her end notes, is the story of many pioneer women who exhibited great strength and courage as they helped to settle the West. The book is full of small details that children will love. Butte, for example, collects almost 50 words for liquor; listing them takes up half of a page. Young readers will enjoy this story, and it will make a great tie-in to American history lessons.Bruce Anne Shook, Mendenhall Middle School, Greensboro, NC
Hazel Rochman
With zest and wit, Cushman gives us the domestic side of the western frontier adventure--what it was like for women and especially children. Just as in her Newbery Medal winner and Honor Book about medieval England, her hero is a young girl who names herself and tries to find her place in a rough, raucous world. Lucy tells her story in the first person and in occasional letters to her grandparents back "home" in Massachusetts: how she hates being stuck out in the California wilderness with her bossy, widowed mother, who dragged her family there and is running a boardinghouse for bellowing miners in a town knee-deep in dirt. Cushman's research shows at times, but there's joy in the daily details (bread made with flour and water, with a drop of molasses to kill the taste of weevils) and in the tall-tale exaggeration of Lucy's narrative (she lives in a space so small "I can lie in bed and stir the beans on the stove without getting up" ). There's sadness, too, as when her younger brother becomes sick and dies, and there's no doctor to help. In fact, the tone is reminiscent of Chaplin's movie "The Gold Rush", with its mixture of farce and pathos. Many readers will recognize their own dislocations in Lucy's reluctant adventure." "In a vividly written afterword, Cushman places Lucy's personal narrative in its historical context.
Kirkus Reviews
The recent Newbery medalist plunks down two more strong-minded women, this time in an 1849 mining camp—a milieu far removed from the Middle Ages of her first novels, but not all that different when it comes to living standards.

Arvella Whipple and her three children, Sierra, Butte, and 11-year-old California Morning, make a fresh start in Lucky Diggins, a town of mud, tents, and rough-hewn residents. It's a far cry from Massachusetts; as her mother determinedly settles in, California rebelliously changes her name to Lucy and starts saving every penny for the trip back east. Ever willing to lose herself in a book when she should be doing errands, Lucy is an irresistible teenager; her lively narration and stubborn, slightly naive self-confidence (as well as a taste for colorful invective: "Gol durn, rip-snortin' rumhole and cussed, dad-blamed, dag diggety, thundering pisspot," she storms) recall the narrator of Catherine, Called Birdy (1994), without seeming as anachronistic. Other characters are drawn with a broader brush, a shambling platoon of unwashed miners with hearts (and in one case, teeth) of gold. Arvella eventually moves on, but Lucy has not only lost her desire to leave California, but found a vocation as well: town librarian. With a story that is less a period piece than a timeless and richly comic coming-of-age story, Cushman remains on a roll.

From the Publisher

"Cushman’s heroine is a delightful character, and the historical setting is authentically portrayed. Lucy’s story, as the author points out in her end notes, is the story of many pioneer women who exhibited great strength and courage as they helped to settle the West."

School Library Journal, starred

"The recent Newbery medalist plunks down two more strong-minded women, this time in an 1849 mining camp—a milieu far removed from the Middle Ages of her first novels, but not all that different when it comes to living standards. . . . With a story that is less a period piece than a timeless and richly comic coming-of-age story, Cushman remains on a roll."

Kirkus Reviews with Pointers

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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324 KB
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Summer 1849

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 themule 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, especially 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 sulune paintedacross its front — saloon, I figured spelled wrong but people seemed to have gotten the meaning allright 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 goingwest, 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, 12 1/2 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.

Meet the Author

Karen Cushman's acclaimed historical novels include Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Midwife's Apprentice, which received the Newbery Medal. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State. Her website is www.karencushmanbooks.com.

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Ballad of Lucy Whipple 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the worse book I've ever read. Never read this book. It's boring, and has no fun in it at all. Worst of all, it's not absorbing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was very informative and interesting, but not my favorite that I've read about this time period. For those of you who like history, a really good and interesting series is the Dear America books. (Yes, they are available on nook) They are written in diary format, so it's similar to this book, but more interesting. And they have books on just about every time period. I would like to read Karen Cushman's other books, though, to give her another chance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is great and exciting but this is not a book you can feel excited about the second time you read it. This was okay but you should just read it at the library. I bought it and found out it was a waste of money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its a great book for learning about the california gold rush
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome book worth the money! Get it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love the author of this book, Karen Cushman. I greatly enjoyed her other two books, Catherine Called Birdy (my favorite book), and The Midwife's Apprentice. But I found Ballad of Lucy Whipple to be rather boring and dull.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lucy Whipple was such an extroidanary book!! It made me feel like I was in the California Gold mines!! Lucy Brought out everything from the book in very descriptive detail! I reccomend this book to anyone that loves to read, yet in the beginning of this book is a bit slow the middle and ending totaly makes up for it.. :)
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the book, Lucy Whipple, was probably one of the best books I have ever read because it was funny and the moral of the story was pretty good. What I liked in the story was that it would lure you and would make you read it more and more until you finish the book. Lucy Whipple's letters that she wrote to her gramma and grampops made the story more captivating and fun. Her letters made the book more interesting to read because she tells about the events and her opinions are expressed as well. What costed the book one star was that the beginning of the book was a bit dull and less captivating to a reader. I think if the author had more interesting events that happened, that it would be better. Even though the beginning wasn't very good, when I was reaching the end of one chapter, I had to read yet another one until I had finished the book and I did at one time!
Guest More than 1 year ago
California Morning Whipple¿s life has been completely flipped. Her father and sister died just recently and now she has to take the Oregon Trail all the way to California. The trip there is just fine it¿s just what happens when she arrives in California. California decides to change her name because she couldn¿t have her name be the name of a place that she hated. She starts the pick names out of books she had read and finally decided on Lucy. She has many adventures and great times in California even though she had hated it on the Trail. The Ballad of Lucy Whipple is a book filled with hardships and fun, a great read for all ages who want to learn about the Oregon Trail. Things out west are nothing compared to what everyone had been saying. Many people had believed that the gold would be everywhere on the ground for someone to pick up and become rich, but that wasn¿t true at all. People had been told that the landscape would be beautiful, but that was a lie, it was horrible! Sometimes there wasn¿t enough food and people had to live in puny tents until they could build real houses. Lucy¿s mother runs a boarding house to anybody who needs a place to stay, if they had $18.20. Mainly, miners would come to get a bed after a really long days work and would pay there share in gold dust. Lucy¿s friend, Joe, whom she later called Bernard Freeman, came to rent a bed but Lucy¿s mother wouldn¿t let him stay until he had the money. At first, the boarding house was a couple of tents, but later it turned it a very nice wooden building with a lot more room for people. In California, lots of things are different for Lucy, but mostly it was the friends that she made. One day while she was supposed to be picking berries, she was reading and couldn¿t stop, when she did she looked over and the buckets were already filled with berries, that¿s how she came to meet Joe, an escaped slave who Lucy later called Bernard Freeman. Lizzie Flagg, a daughter of Linus Flagg who is one of the meanest men ever, is another person who meets Lucy and instantly becomes friends with her. The Flaggs aren¿t the typical family, who live in a house and are civilized, but the live outside in a tent and eat from the land they are usually seen as wild animals. Good things happened in California, but bad things happened as well. Butte, Lucy¿s brother, died of a sickness, and a fire roared through Lucky Diggins and destroyed everything. This book is perfect for learning about how hard it was for everybody living in California or moving to California by the Oregon Trail to search for gold and maybe, just maybe become rich. E.Gray