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."
About 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. Visit her online at karencushman.com and on Twitter @cushmanbooks.
Read an Excerpt
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.