Lucy Whipple

Karen Cushman, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple NY: HarperTrophy, 1996).

In 1849 a widowed mother moves her family from Massachusetts to Lucky Diggins, a mining camp in California. Her twelve-year-old daughter, named California Morning Whipple, resents the move. She writes to her grandparents: "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 signs herself as "an involuntary citizen" of Lucky Diggins (8). California Whipple changes her name to Lucy; "I cannot hate California and be California," (15) and saves as much as she can from selling pies to the miners in order to finance her return to Massachusetts.

A former teacher sends her a box of books which Lucy lends to the miners with three conditions: she gets to read them first; they must not get tobacco juice on the books; and they must return them to her, not lend them to someone else. The third rule is frequently broken; the books pass from hand to hand, traveling many miles, but return to her eventually. She even finds some gold dust wrapped in cigarette paper placed inside one of the books by a grateful reader. The camp is rough and the work hard. Lucy finds solace in her books. She writes to her grandparents: "Not that I don't believe in God. I do. I'm just not sure that I believe in Heaven, at least not like I believe in the public library" (86).

A fire destroys the camp and Lucy's books. Her mother decides to marry Brother Clyde and move the family to the Sandwich Islands. But Lucy intends to return to Massachusetts with another family moving back East.

The camp rebuilds: a stagecoach line is established and goods and people and speculators come to Lucky Diggins. Lucy continues to receive books she loaned: they are important to the miners who takes pains to return them sometimes after a long time and from great distances. Lucy realizes that "... home is where I am loved and safe and needed. And that's Lucky Diggins" (206). She meets Mrs. Porterhouse who "is determined to civilize California" (207). Lucy decides she has a role to play in the new society. She has an idea for a lending library in the basement of the church. The miners will pay one dollar a month to run the library and pay the librarian.

She writes to her mother: "I am Miss Whipple, the librarian! ... I will stay right here in a room over the general store and run the library, ordering books and mending torn pages, keeping track of who borrows what, reading whatever I like, living and working surrounded by books. Mama, imagine. It is my heart's desire." She signs the letter "Miss California Morning Whipple, happy citizen and librarian of Lucky Diggins, California, U.S.A." (208-09).

At the start of the book she is a too-often sullen and petulant twelve-year old. She is also spunky, intelligent and hard-working. At the end she is fourteen, but having lived through hardships of several kinds she has learned what is important to her and has made a place for herself in the new community which, like Lucy, is still young, unsophisticated, and half-formed.

Emerging communities need many things, but it's surprising how quickly they establish institutions that have a qualitative effect on their lives: churches, "oprey" houses, and libraries.



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