Letters from the Corrugated Castle: A Novel of Gold Rush California, 1850-1852 by Joan W. Blos, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Letters from the Corrugated Castle: A Novel of Gold Rush California, 1850-1852
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Letters from the Corrugated Castle: A Novel of Gold Rush California, 1850-1852

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by Joan W. Blos

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Dear Cousin Sallie,
I begin with words I never thought to write:
I am not an orphan!

Thirteen-year-old Eldora has always believed that her mother died when she was very little, and for nine years she has lived with people that she calls Aunt and Uncle. The year is 1850, and all three have exchanged their quiet lives in New Bedford,


Dear Cousin Sallie,
I begin with words I never thought to write:
I am not an orphan!

Thirteen-year-old Eldora has always believed that her mother died when she was very little, and for nine years she has lived with people that she calls Aunt and Uncle. The year is 1850, and all three have exchanged their quiet lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for new ones in San Francisco, the rapidly growing city that is the heart of the California Gold Rush. Shortly after their arrival, they receive a letter from an unknown woman who believes she is Eldora's mother. She is eager to meet her long-lost daughter, and a visit is arranged. As Eldora deals with her conflicting feelings about this news, she must also adjust to the challenges — and dangers — of living in a brash and growing city. She finds herself teaching English to two Mexicano children and beginning to learn Spanish, and an unlikely friendship with a boy named Luke introduces her to the hard, sometimes humorous, and often violent world of the mining camps. Every day seems to bring something different and new to consider. But can Eldora discover where — and to whom — she belongs?

Told in letters that ring with the voice of the times, Letters from the Corrugated Castle is an intriguing adventure set in a fascinating time in California's history — a worthy conclusion to the geographical trilogy begun with A Gathering of Days, winner of the Newbery Medal, and Brothers of the Heart.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Told through a series of letters and newspaper dispatches, Newbery Medalist Blos's (A Gathering of Days) latest novel recounts the excitement and dangers of San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Believing herself an orphan, Eldora has lived with an adoptive family, the Holts, in New Bedford, Mass., since she was three years old. The Holts move to San Francisco to take advantage of Gold Rush prosperity, where they learn Eldora's mother is still alive; soon after, 13-year-old Eldora and her mother, Mrs. Ramos, are reunited. (When Eldora was a girl, her mother was stricken with cholera on a sea voyage and was forced to send her daughter on without her-when her father could not be located, Eldora fell into the Holts' care.) At her mother's suggestion, Eldora moves to San Pedro where her mother, now a wealthy landowner, lives and runs an inn. Through the letters Eldora writes to her cousin Sallie back in New Bedford (and letters Eldora receives from Luke, whom Eldora met in San Francisco), readers will learn about the perils, dreams and daily routines that were part of these pioneers' lives. With her mother away so often tending to business, Eldora grows lonely and yearns to return to San Francisco and to her life with the Holts. Suffused with a wealth of period details and language, this quiet, reflective tale is an appealing glimpse into the adventurous spirit that pervaded this chapter of American history. Ages 10-14. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Florence H. Munat
Told mainly through a series of letters, this historical novel describes San Francisco and the Salinas Valley through the eyes of teenage orphan Eldora, who is being raised by her "aunt and uncle." The three have relocated to California from New Bedford, Massachusetts. "Corrugated Castle" is the name for their iron house-common, fireproof structures in the city at that time. Most letters are from Eldora to her cousin back East; Luke, a Michigan newspaperman's son, writes some. At the book's beginning, Eldora learns that her birth mother-who reportedly succumbed to cholera in Panama-is living in the Salinas Valley. Eldora decides to move to the valley where her mother is a well-respected matriarch, owning many ranches, mines, and a posada. Leaving Aunt and Uncle is more difficult than Eldora expected, and although happy to be reunited with her mother, the transition does not turn out to be the fairy tale she had imagined. Abundant historical detail-including the history of Spanish and Mexican settlement in the area-makes Eldora's story come alive. She teaches a Mexican brother and sister English, and they teach her Spanish. Miguel is drawn to "the diggings" (gold mining/panning camps), as is their mutual friend Luke. But Miguel is shot and killed by another miner. Luke ultimately opts to attend Uncle's school-modeled on Bronson Alcott's philosophy. Eldora eventually moves back to the city too. Themes of mother-daughter relationships, friendship, abandonment, and reconnection enrich this engrossing story, which draws an excellent picture of a new state struggling to find its identity.
KLIATT - Janis Flint-Ferguson
Eldora leaves New Bedford, Massachusetts with her aunt and uncle to settle in California during the Gold Rush. Through her letters to her cousin in New England and later in letters to new friends in California, the story of her young life is slowly revealed. Eldora is living with her aunt and uncle because her mother and father are dead, or so she has always believed. Eldora had been brought to the couple from South America during a cholera epidemic. But in coming to California, Eldora learns that her mother is still very much alive and begins a relationship with her that leads her away from the humble dwelling where her aunt sells pies and her uncle has opened a school. In California, Eldora makes friends with the many Mexican families in the area, particularly with Miguel and his little sister, Lucia. The family also hosts John Hall, a journalist from the East, and his son, Luke, who hopes to find his fortune in the gold mines. Eldora's letters introduce readers to the difficult lives within the mining communities, the tragedies and the celebrations, the prejudice and the possibilities that opened California to the rest of the country.
School Library Journal

Gr 5-8
Thirteen-year-old Eldora, who has recently moved to California with her adoptive aunt and uncle, has just discovered that, contrary to her belief, she is not an orphan; she has a mother residing nearby. As she awaits the woman's arrival, she writes a series of letters to her cousin Sallie in New Bedford, MA, that describe life in boomtown San Francisco, the helter-skelter development, the excitement in the mining camps, illness, and the ever-present danger of fire. When her mother finally appears, Eldora makes the decision to leave her aunt and uncle and go with her to San Pedro. Although the teen imagines that she will live like a princess with her well-to-do mother, such is not the case as more letters to her friend Luke and her aunt and uncle reveal. Eldora changes from a girl trying to live up to adult standards into a young woman who can stand up for her principles. The language is true to the times and the plot has significant twists and turns, but the pacing is sedate. By incorporating a wide range of historical facts through letters and through the articles that Luke's journalist father sends back to his newspaper in Michigan, the author has created a stately, sweeping epic novel. The book abounds in curriculum connections and is suitable for reading aloud.
—Kathryn KosiorekCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Thirteen-year-old Eldora has moved to San Francisco with her aunt and uncle. In her letters to Cousin Sallie, she interweaves her story with that of the new city. The corrugated castle in the title is Eldora's new home, an iron structure built in two days from a kit. While the heart of the early letters are an anticipated meeting with her long-lost mother and the possibility that she is not an orphan after all, the story eventually incorporates a newspaper column about San Francisco and various letters, including those from her new friend Luke. Eldora's letters in this epistolary novel are a contrivance, relating much history but never sounding like real letters, and readers-beyond history buffs-may find the story slow going. However, Eldora is a likable character and readers will enjoy seeing her find her way in a new city in the process of creating a unique identity. (glossary) (Fiction. 10-14)

Product Details

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)
1000L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Eldora

August 5, 1850 - November 18, 1850

No story begins entirely of itself. There is a story behind each and every story, and behind that story there is yet another.

John Hall, Travels in the West

The First Letter

San Francisco, California

Monday, August 5, 1850

Dear Cousin Sallie,

I begin with words I never thought to write: I am not an orphan! Never mind that we have believed this to be so since I was first brought to live with Aunt and Uncle (not my real aunt and uncle as you well know).

Yesterday Aunt received a letter from a woman who lives in San Pedro, which is in the Salinas Valley, some three days' journey hence. The woman, whose name is Señora Elisabeth Ramos, believes me to be her daughter! She tells that she did not die of cholera in Panama as has been understood to be the case. She has been twice widowed. Her first husband was my father. Her second husband died shortly after the ending of the war with Mexico. They did not have any children. So I am her only daughter, her only child. She hopes that she may visit when she is next in San Francisco.

Aunt told me this morning that she and Uncle are agreed that when she replies to Mrs. Ramos, she will say only that we have received her news, rejoice at her well-being, and will welcome a visit. "And," Aunt said, looking at me directly, "until that happens, Eldora, we will speak no more of her letter nor expend ourselves on conjecture."

I was greatly curious but asking questions would have been of no use. It has always been Aunt's way not to spend time in thinking on matters until they require attention. Uncle is more reflective and, in that regard, I am more like him. It will hardly surprise you, therefore, that he was the one to join me, over the next several days, in wondering how my mother — if indeed she is my mother — learned of my whereabouts. Nor will it surprise you to hear that when Uncle and I speculated aloud as to whether I resemble her in appearance, Aunt busied herself at the cookstove and had nothing to say on the matter.

It is twelve weeks since we said our farewells, four since we arrived in this place, three since our iron house was erected, and two since we saw our first fire. We are told that fires are quite common here, many dwellings being made of tent canvas or hastily constructed of wood. I am glad we have an iron house.

We stayed in a hotel while awaiting the walls, doors, windows, and so forth needed for the construction of our house. These necessary parts were sent from New York City but, having been ordered before we left New Bedford, were not too long in arriving. As soon as the shipment containing them arrived, Uncle engaged a man to assist in assembling our new home. It took only two days to complete it. Aunt's cookstove required nearly four days! It was also sent, disassembled, from New York City, and it was our good fortune that it arrived at nearly the same time as the house.

The furnishings are few: a table that serves many purposes, a rocking chair, several straight chairs, shelves for Uncle's books, and a bed for Aunt and Uncle. Aunt has curtained one corner to form a sleeping place for me. A small table next to my bed holds a basin and a pitcher. A chamber pot is stored under the bed. All very convenient!

Although the price is dear, we have purchased some few items in addition to the kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, and tableware we brought with us. A well-made broom pleased Aunt especially, and also a bucket of good size. Uncle has taken to referring to our new home as our corrugated castle! It is small but quite comfortable.

We three remain in excellent health although we are surrounded by much illness. The cholera is the worst of it. Many people arrive in weakened condition due to the travail they have endured merely to reach this place. In that regard it does not seem to matter whether one travels overland or, as we did, by sea.

I trust that you also are well, and hope to hear that this is indeed the case. Has Baby Emily got her first tooth? She is the cunningest baby I have ever seen. I liked so much to hold her and make her smile. It is hard to imagine how she will look with teeth! I think it would make me smile!

We have not yet received any letters, so you can appreciate our concern and curiosity. Are you addressing letters to San Francisco, California, and prepaying them? It appears this is necessary for their secure receipt. I hope I am the first to receive a letter and that it comes from you!

I hope I will soon be able to tell you about my mother's visit if Mrs. Ramos is indeed my mother. Aunt cautions me that I must not place all my hopes on it.

With greatest affection,


The Second Letter

San Francisco, California

Monday, August 12, 1850

Dear Cousin Sallie,

Aunt has received another letter from Mrs. Ramos. Because of her business, the nature of which we do not know as yet, she will be in this city in a few weeks' time and hopes to call on us then. She is quite certain that I am her daughter but she wrote very little about herself, or how she found me, or why she believes she is my mother. In consequence of which we are more curious than ever! I grow more impatient with each passing day but Aunt worries that a mistake has been made and that the woman who wrote to us is not my mother after all. "How will we know?" she asks. To which Uncle replies in his steadying way, "We will know, and so will she."

The letter from Mrs. Ramos was posted in Monterey. It came with the mail ship but only after considerable delay due to contrary winds. It was the only letter we received.

While waiting for the mail to be distributed, Uncle met a man named Mr. Hall and his son. The son, who is traveling with him, is named Luke. He is a good deal taller than I am and already has a low voice. His father mentioned that Luke has only recently passed his fourteenth birthday so he is older than I am, but only by a year. Luke is able to travel with his father because he no longer attends school. Why this is so was not explained. I could tell that Uncle was curious, but he did not ask!

Mr. Hall is a newspaper writer from the state of Michigan. He intends to write about California's cities, people, and gold mines. The newspaper for the town where he lives will publish his dispatches. He says that every one is eager to read about California, as every one is hoping to come here or they know someone who is here already. Mr. Hall told Uncle that Millfield, which is where he lives, and also the next town over, are short of doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers because they have all left for California!

Uncle says that he and Mr. Hall have discovered that they are very much in agreement about books, shipping companies, and political matters. Aunt laughed when he told us. She was certain, she said, that the last was most important. Then she added that she hoped this new friend would pay us a visit so she might form her own impression. Uncle said he had already made the suggestion, and hoped that the son would come too. Evidently the idea met with Mr. Hall's approval for he came today and his son came with him!

Mr. Hall is friendly and can be quite funny. But if the son stays at the hotel the next time his father decides to visit he will not be very much missed. He did not seem much interested in what others were saying and when asked a question said little more than "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" in reply.

Aunt served slices of the bread that she had made only that morning, and with it honey we had brought with us. She used the China tea — bought here — for the first time. Mr. Hall exclaimed at the bread and protested her generosity with the honey. But Luke spread his bread with several spoonfuls of it, and licked his fingers as boldly as you please. Aunt said nothing at the time. But after they left she commented on his unmannerly behavior. Uncle said he thought that Luke was a very unhappy boy. I wonder why Uncle believes this to be the case. I did not know boys could be unhappy.

Aunt is calling. I will end this letter now and write more tomorrow or the next day.

Notice Appearing in

the Millfield Herald

The Millfield Herald is pleased to announce that Mr. John Hall, well known to residents of this city, has consented to furnish readers of this publication with accounts of his travels and impressions while visiting California and its goldfields. He intends to remain there for some months.


Shem Perkins, Editor

The Third Letter

San Francisco, California

Tuesday, September 3, 1850

Dear Cousin Sallie,

I think you will laugh when I tell you that I have made a friend who does not speak English and appears to be no more than five years old! Possibly she is older as Mexicanos tend to be small even when they are grown.

This afternoon Aunt had gone down to Portsmouth Square (which is the central plaza) and I had completed the lesson Uncle set for me. As is usually the case in California, it was quite pleasant outside. I was seated on the empty packing box that Aunt and I use as a dooryard bench. Seated there, one can see up the street as well as down. On one day we will admire the clothesline a neighbor has strung from a corner of her house to a sturdy pole; another day we will laugh to see a household's entire washload displayed spread-eagle flat on the canvas roof of their tent.

Today, my attention was captured by a small girl, with the blackest hair you ever saw, as she came up the street. She was looking with frank curiosity at the houses along the way — the canvas tents, an iron house larger than ours, and several dwellings of wood that boast framed windows.

I had the impression that our street represented quite a novelty to the little girl, and perhaps it did. Once, I recalled, Uncle had described coming upon a portion of the city where most of the houses were small adobes. It was a rather short distance from this area, perhaps only a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, but seemed to belong to another world. Most of the residents, he had added, appeared to be Mexicanos. So perhaps that explained not only the child's curiosity but also the cut of her long black skirt and embroidered cotton blouse.

As she came closer, I saw that she was cradling some roughly knotted cloth with twigs sticking out on either side. Its identity puzzled me at first. But the tender way she sang to it showed it to be a well-loved doll. The child halted when she came to our gate, stared at me with curiosity equal to mine, and quickly looked away. I looked at her, smiled, and patted the space beside me. As an invitation, it was understood and accepted.

For a few minutes neither of us spoke. When the silence became uncomfortably long, I offered the information that we were from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and that my name was Eldora. The child listened carefully but when she spoke it was to say, "No English."

A few minutes later she touched my hair with one finger and said, "Dorado." Thinking she meant to say my name, which I had just revealed, I corrected her. I had not guessed her intention, however. She sighed deeply as if despairing at my stupidity, and shook her head, no.

Then she ventured to touch my hair again and quietly but clearly repeated what she had said. Next, she pointed to her own hair and said, "Negro." Then she pointed to herself and said, "Lucia," and finally, she pointed to me and said, very clearly, "Eldora." At this I laughed aloud for the sheer joy of understanding our exchange. Following her example, I spoke my name and hers and the colors of her hair and mine. Then a new thought struck me. Pointing to the doll she carried, I asked the doll's name. Lucia looked puzzled at this and I knew I would have to try again.

"My name," I said, pointing at myself, "Eldora. Your name: Lucia. And" — here I pointed at the doll — "her name?"

"No name," she said.

"No name?" I repeated, and Lucia nodded. So, from that moment on, No-Name was the name of the doll.

We were very pleased to have begun a friendship in this way and cared not at all for the differences between us. Only a short while later a young Mexicano, broader in the shoulders than Luke but not as tall, came up the street. He stopped when he saw us and shook a finger at Lucia. He was speaking Spanish so I did not understand the words except for "madre," which he said several times and quite sharply. It was clear that she was to come with him at once and that her mother was vexed. Lucia stood up quickly, put the doll under her arm, and bade me, "Adiós." I said the same to her, following it with, "Good-bye."

I think it was her brother that came to find her. He seemed not surprised, just cross, that she had wandered into the neighborhood of the Americanos. Evidently this was not the first time she had done so and he had been sent to look for her.

After Lucia and her brother left, I remained seated for a while and that was when one of our neighbors came hurrying out of her house. She lives only two houses west of ours and she was in such haste that she was still drying her hands on her apron as she came toward me.

"It is not good to play with Mexicanos," she said. "Dirt. Disease. Also, they are thieves. I am quite certain your mother would not approve."

"Perhaps you have seen me with Mrs. Holt," I said. "But she is not my mother."

If my intention had been to discomfort her, the expression of dismay that came over her face showed that I had succeeded. I knew I owed her an apology. But, rankled by the way she had spoken of Lucia, I was disinclined to give the woman the least information. I just sat there and she just stood there.

After a few minutes, during which neither one of us spoke, she shrugged, looked at me crossly, and walked back to her house which she then entered. I suppose it was rude of me to behave as I did and she will probably regard me as a hateful child forever. That is not so bad. But if she tells others about me it could cause trouble for Uncle and I would be sorry.

Uncle is working very hard to start a school here. As you know he is very much influenced by Mr. Alcott and his writings, and Uncle intends his school to be one where students learn to trust themselves beyond the teachings of books. Thus, he says, he will not so much instruct the students as guide them in their learning. He is firm in his beliefs but these ideas are new ideas, not yet widely held. For this reason, he has told me more than once, it is important that our neighbors think well of us and trust him as a teacher.

I hope I will make a better impression on the next neighbor who talks to me.

Ever and fondly,


Copyright © 2007 by Joan W. Blos

Meet the Author

Joan W. Blos is the author of A Gathering of Days, winner of the 1980 Newbery Medal, the American Book Award, and other honors. She wrote, and later dramatized, Brothers of the Heart, also a work of historical fiction. Her other books include Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme, Martin's Hats, Old Henry (an award-winning picture book), The Heroine of the Titanic (also an award-winning story), and Hello, Shoes! She has been an editor, a lecturer, and a teacher of children's literature. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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