The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago is the most fabulous sight the girls have ever seen, with its incredible sights, sounds, and crowds. But in the chaos of the White City, twelve-year-old Dora Pomeroy yearns for Nebraska and the secure life she left behind. Her father has joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, leaving Mrs. Pomeroy and her children Dora and her three younger sisters, Lillian, Phoebe, and Tess on their own.
While their mother works long hours, Dora is once again left in charge of her sisters. Overwhelmed by responsibility, she worries about Lillian and Phoebe as they find jobs of their own and experience strange new foods, foreign culture, and incredible inventions. Seeing the changes that the turn of the century will bring makes Dora wish for a more traditional family until her own family is threatened in the fantasyland that will disappear at summer's end....
"Tell it again."
Dora sighed. She had already told her three younger sisters the story one thousand times since they'd left the ranch in Saddlestring, Nebraska. As their eastbound train rumbled toward Chicago, she took a deep breath and leaned forward toward Lillian and Phoebe in the facing seat. "At the fair the buildings are white and splendid and big," Dora said. Expertly, she shifted four-year-old Tess, their sleeping youngest sister, in her lap. "The sidewalk moves by itself and a giant wheel carries people up into the sky. There's a real, genume castle you can visit and -- "
"Stop interrupting," Lillian said. She was eight and fearless. The Ferris wheel was her favorite. "Nobody falls because they're inside a car like this with walls and a ceiling."
"Oh," said Phoebe. She looked around at the sixty-five passengers jammed into grubby, hard seats on the rocking, rattling Union Pacific car. The hot, close air smelled of whisky, tobacco, and sweat. The ceiling drummed with the sound of cinders belched against the roof from the steam engine's smokestack. Across the aisle a baby wailed. A woman blew her nose loudly and shouted in a strange language at two wrestling boys. A man in a cowboy hat snored. Phoebe decided she'd skip the Ferris wheel.
"At the fair there are many inventions," Dora continued. "I don't know all the names. Electric machines and gadgets and -- "
"You forgot to tell about the cheese," Phoebe said.
Dora rolled her eyes. "At the fair there is an eleven-ton cheese and a fifteen-hundred-pound chocolate statue of a beautiful woman named Venus and a real battleship and trained lions, tigers, and elephants and -- "
Lillian smiled dreamily. "I'm going to have a little taste." She smacked her lips. "Just a nibble."
Phoebe scowled. "You mean a crumb of chocolate from her toe? You'll get in trouble."
"Nobody will notice. Venus is huge. She weighs tons," Lillian said indignantly. "Do you know how big that is?"
Phoebe shook her head. "Dora, how much is tons?"
Dora, who always impressed her sisters with her knowledge of nearly everything, wasn't listening. She was staring at the scuffed toes of her worn-out, too-small boots. What if all the other twelve-year-old girls in Chicago wore shiny, new shoes?
"Dora!" Phoebe insisted. "Lillian says she's going to steal chocolate. She's going to be arrested."
"I didn't say I'm going to steal Venus's toe. I just said I'm going to taste it," Lillian said angrily.
Dora looked at Lillian and Phoebe as if they were both crazy. "Can't you two get along for five minutes? If your shrieking wakes up Tess, you have to play with her," Dora warned. She looked down at her sleeping sister. Tess's matted hair smelled sour and dusty and had left a damp spot on Dora's skirt. Under one chubby arm Tess clutched beloved Nancy, a rag doll with black bead eyes and one arm missing.
"You forgot the camels and donkeys," Lillian complained.
Phoebe pouted. "You forgot the balloon ride and the volcano and the gold mine."
"I'll tell the rest later," Dora said and yawned. "Now leave me alone." She shut her eyes.
Bored, Phoebe sat up on her knees and pressed her sweaty face against the grimy train window. The mark she made on the glass looked like a ghost staring in at her and her three sisters. "See, Lillian? " she said proudly. She ran her finger along the outline of flattened nose, wide forehead, and shallow chin.
"Not as ugly as you in real life," Lillian replied without glancing up. Dainty Lillian was practicing her autograph with a stubby pencil and a paper scrap. Again and again she wrote the stage name she had invented: "LillianLucilleMarlePomeroy" spelled all together so the whole name would have to be used and would take up as much room as possible on the marquee.
Phoebe frowned and wiped her greasy face mark from the window with her sleeve. She was dark haired like the other Pomeroy girls, but her lips were thin and her ears were overlarge. Mama called her too plain to go on stage professionally, which was fine with shy Phoebe, who did not like to sing or dance. Critically, Phoebe examined her dirty sleeve, which had now become even dirtier. Her eyes narrowed with anger. She gave pretty, irritating Lillian a swift, secret jab with her elbow.
"Ouch!" Lillian wailed
"Sorry." Phoebe made a contrite llittle smile.
Dora's eyes flew open. "Stop it both of you."
"Better not have given me a bruise," Lillian grumbled.
Phoebe stuck out her tongue.
Dora pretended not to notice. The train car bucked and rattled. She wished she could open the window, that there'd be a fresh, cool breeze -- not more dust rolling from across the plains or more cinders blown in from the smokestack. Her eyelids lowered. Her head drifted against the sooty window frame.
Carefully, Phoebe removed a battered penny postcard from her pocket. "Let me borrow your pencil, Lillian," she whispered.
"What for?" Lillian demanded. She held the pencil tightly in her fist.
"I told Florence I'd write her."
Lillian puckered her mouth. "Next thing you'll be asking for a penny to mail it. Well, don't bother, because I'm saving my money for the Ferris wheel."
"Just for a minute," Phoebe pleaded. "Come on, Lillian."
At the sound of Phoebe's familiar, high-pitched whine, Dora opened one eye. "Give her the pencil, Lillian. Stop being so stingy for once."
Never got too say good by to you
Papa said we got to skip out at nite
for the sherriff comes I will trie to send
you a reel souveneer post card from the FAIR
do not ever forget your old frend -- Phoebe
"Done?" Lillian demanded with her palm outstretched.
Phoebe handed back the pencil. "That's all the words I can fit." She slid the postcard back into her pocket.
Dora stretched her arms over her head. Her leg was cramping under Tess's weight. She felt as if they had been traveling for days.
"How far till Chicago?" Lillian demanded.
"Supposed to be there this evening," Dora said. She stared out the window. Dry, gray-green Iowa blurred past. Dark clouds herded against the horizon, which stretched like a taut line of barbed wire.
"I liked the ranch," Phoebe said in a quiet voice to no one in particular. "First place we ever lived three years in a row. Our first real house." She sighed. "We even had curtains."
Lillian drummed her fingers on the worn, red upholstery. "I'm glad we're going to a big city with lots of bright lights. We're going to see the fair. And don't forget the Wild West Show. We're going to be famous this time, just like Mama said. The ranch was dull. Exactly the same every day."
Dora turned and glanced over her shoulder at their mother dozing in the seat behind them. No one would have guessed that the woman in the yellow taffeta silk skirt and knobby broadcloth cape with most of the pearl buttons missing was once a ranch wife in a faded gingham apron. On her lap she clutched her precious, well-traveled hatbox. Her chin had dropped to her chest, and the fake bluebird on her gayest fancy straw hat bobbed and leapt as if trying to free itself as the train lurched along.
Dora remembered a meadowlark she had once found caught by one wing on a fence on her way to school. The bird's beating heart, bones, and feathers had felt light as wind when she'd let it go. Did the meadowlark remember her? She turned and stared out the window. "No more school," she said in a soft, mournful voice.
Phoebe nodded sadly. "No more friends."
"You'll make new ones," Lillian replied with impatience. "And what was so wonderful about Miss Elvira Simpson and that schoolhouse with the rattlesnakes under the floorboards and those nasty boys lurking around at recess? I hated school. I'm glad we don't have to go no more."
"Any more," Dora corrected her.
"That's what I said," Lillian replied. Her pretty face flushed bright red. "Sometimes I think you two are the dullest creatures on earth. Dora, you with your stupid spelling bee awards and you, Phoebe, with your stupid Wards Catalog."
Phoebe frowned. "Wards Catalog isn't stupid. It's beautiful."
Lillian folded her arms in front of herself and flounced backward against the hard seat. Phoebe ran her fingers down a pleat of her patched serge skirt. Dora tried not to feel angry about Lillian's comment about Miss Simpson and the spelling bees. Dora was proud of how well she could spell hard words like incinerate and parallel. She liked school. She liked doing something besides taking care of her younger sisters.
School was escape. When she went to school she could practice writing perfectly shaped vowels with elegant wiggly tails, and wash the blackboard better than anyone, and read difficult words no one else could pronounce from the McGuffey's Reader. And best of all, Miss Simpson praised her. Dora was special at school. At home she was just somebody who cooked and swept and did laundry. She had to wipe dirty noses and bandage bloody knees and make up games to keep her sisters from killing each other. School was easy. Everything else in Dora's life was hard. Everything.
"Wanna lemonade," Tess said, awake now. She sat up and rubbed her grubby fists in her large blue eyes. She stared hard at the boy across the aisle, who was sipping something from a glass bottle beaded with moisture.
"Hush," Dora replied. "We don't have any money."
"Wanna lemonade," Tess repeated, more insistent this time.
"Take her for some water, will you, Lillian?" Dora asked.
"Why me?" Lillian demanded. The doll Nancy tumbled from Tess's arms and landed upside down on the seat. "Come on, Little Kisses," Lillian said, using Tess's nickname. Lillian took her thirsty sister by the hand and dragged her down the aisle toward the water spigot, which dribbled warm, rusty-tasting water into a paper-tasting cone.
As soon as Lillian and Tess disappeared, Phoebe asked quietly, "Dora, do you think Wards Catalog is stupid?"
"No, of course not."
Phoebe examined her ragged fingernails. "You think I'm ugly?"
"No, I do not. You shouldn't pay so much attention to Lillian. You know how she goes on and on sometimes just to hear the sound of her own voice. She doesn't mean half what she says."
Phoebe's thin shoulders seemed to relax. She spread her fingers out on her lap. "Twenty times. We moved twenty times in ten years. I counted. You think we'll stay put in Chicago?"
Dora shrugged. She didn't want to give her worried sister false hope. Papa had what he called a natural disposition to remove to a new country. It was in his blood, he said. His papa and his papa's papa did the same. "Pomeroys never settle down," he liked to brag. Like his ancestors, Papa did not need much reason to move on, to pull up roots and head out for some distant, better opportunity. Dora's family's life was rooted in rootlessness. Sometimes it seemed to her as if they'd played every little run-down theater and two-bit circus act between New Jersey and California, crisscrossing the country from one small town to the next mining camp and back again. In all those years, Dora had been to school only a total of four years.
"Girls! " Mama gave Dora's shoulder a poke. "Will you look out that window? Before you know it we'll be crossing the Mississippi. Oh, I can tell you I can hardly wait to be in a big city again. Chicago! You never saw anything so beautiful in all your life."
Dora twisted in her seat to catch a glimpse of Mama fanning herself with her slender, gloved hand as she bent over the red-faced man sitting next to her, beside the window. "Excuse me, sir, but I just have to keep looking for Illinois, " Mama apologized in her sweetest melted butter voice.
Unlike Dora, who had dry, frizzy dark hair, Mama's hair was thick and auburn. Mama's eyes were dark and striking and she had high cheekbones, which she said helped her "light up on stage." Dora always knew there was something slightly exotic about Mama's beauty, yet this afternoon she felt as if she were looking at a stranger. That was when she realized what had changed. Her mother was smiling. She had not seen her mother look so happy in years.
"Going home, ma'am?" the stranger asked and pushed his stained, felt hat back on his meaty forehead.
"You might say we're going to our real home. The stage. We've been away awhile. Maybe you've heard of the Magnificent Pomeroy Performers and Their Talking Horse?"
The stranger shook his head. Phoebe blushed. Dora wished her mother would speak in a more quiet voice. What if everyone on the train car was listening?
"Well, if you missed our act, maybe you saw me in Uncle Tom's Cabin or maybe The Count of Monte Cristo."
The man's silence seemed to indicate he was stumped.
Mama did not give up so easily. "I did Ten Nights in a Barroom at the Belmont before it burned. A very popular show."
"I seen that! That was good," he gushed.
Mama smiled and fingered one of the velvet rosettes on her hat brim. "Of course that was ages ago. Before all four girls were born. We're starting a new routine. Calling it Barn Yard Musicians. Chicken imitations, dogs jumping through fiery hoops, that kind of thing. I'm quite a dancer and, of course, so are my precious little daughters. I have four daughters, sir. Each one more talented than the next. We had a nice act. Of course, that was before we took up ranching. Hated it. Absolutely hated it. Nothing worse than eleven months of wind and winter in Nebraska. After the bank foreclosed we decided to head to Chicago. Like everybody else, I guess," she said. Her nervous laughter sounded musical.
The stranger smiled. One of his front teeth was missing.
"I'm sure you've heard of the Wild West Show and Buffalo Bill?"
The stranger nodded eagerly.
"My husband," Mama said with dramatic pause, "has been hired by Buffalo Bill himself to be one of the horse handlers. He was a trick rider before he hurt his back. A real professional dare-devil."
Dora and her sister shrank lower and lower into their seats as if somehow they could become invisible.
"Well Buffalo Bill, Bill, as we like to call him," Mama continued, "he heard about my husband and he hired him on the spot. Of course I'm going to audition. Maybe get my babies on stage, too. Ever been to Chicago?"
"Sure. Sure -- "
"We're going to be right across the street from the World's Columbian Exposition. We're going to be performing for thousands of folks every day."
"The fair! Now there's something," the stranger managed to interrupt Mama. "Unbelievable. The chance of a lifetime. Why I've heard -- "
Before he could get another word in edgewise, Mama burst into a long monologue about their costumes and their songs and their unfortunate contract in San Francisco and how the trick horse died halfway across Nevada, which was one reason they ended up in Nebraska and she was certainly glad to be getting back to civilization again. She bet he was glad, too, wasn't he?
"Yes, ma'am," the stranger said with some confusion. He seemed grateful when the train pulled into a water stop for the engine. He stood up and tipped his hat and took a long walk out to the platform.
Dora twisted in her seat. "Do you have to talk so loud to strangers, Mama?" she hissed.
Mama patted her face with a handkerchief and checked her hair, using a small mirror from her cheap square pocketbook, which was made of embossed leather and was worn white around the ball catch. "Dora," she said, looking with disdain over the top of the mirror. "Never, never underestimate the effect of a little advance publicity." She dropped the mirror in the purse and snapped it shut. "Where's your father?"
"Haven't seen him since Omaha," replied Phoebe, who, like the rest of her sisters, knew very well where Papa had gone. Phoebe didn't want to tell Mama for fear of a scene. Besides, she was enjoying Mama's rare good mood.
Mama arranged her cape and glanced cheerfully up and down the car, which was emptying of the crowd of ragged families, limping cowboys, and down-on-their-luck salesmen traveling on the cheapest fares possible. "Do you think all these people are out of work? "
Dora shrugged. It was unusual for Mama to think about other people's circumstances. How many times had she reminded Dora and her sisters that other people's troubles were just too depressing? She had enough problems of her own, she liked to say, to worry about anybody else.
Mama peered happily out the window and sang in a soft voice:
"Then come sit by my side if you love me;
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
But remember the Red River Valley
and the cowboy that loved you so true...
The familiar tune made Dora smile at Phoebe. Neither girl had heard their mother sing "Red River Valley" in a long, long time. "Remember?" Phoebe whispered to her sister.
"Haven't heard it since before the El Grande Theater in Leadville," Dora replied. She smiled. Maybe everything was going to work out fine after all. Maybe Chicago and the Wild West Show would be their lucky break.
The train whistle wailed. "All aboard!" the conductor shouted.
Dora glanced at Nancy, sprawled in the seat across from them. She jumped to her feet. "What's wrong?" Phoebe demanded.
"Tess and Lillian! Where are they?" Dora said. Desperately, she pushed her way up the aisle through the crowd of passengers piling back on the train again. What if her sisters had wandered off the train onto the platform?
"Tess, Lillian! " she called in desperation.
"Last call! All aboard!" the conductor called. A bell rang.
Dora looked out over the empty platform. What if they'd been kidnapped? She was about to alert the conductor when she heard a familiar giggle. Tess and Lillian stood in the passageway between the two train cars. They carried bottles in their arms. "Where'd you get that lemonade?" Dora demanded, angry and relieved at the same time.
"Lillian," Tess said sweetly.
Dora shot a suspicious glance at her grinning sister.
"Train boy was selling them and he said he had some extras," Lillian explained. "Little Kisses was so thirsty. Got one for you and Phoebe, too. Can't call me stingy now, can you?"
Copyright © 2001 by Laurie Lawlor