Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

Karen Cushman
For ages 12 to and up
Houghton Mifflin, 1996   ISBN: 978-0395728062

California Morning Whipple is almost beside herself with disappointment. It is 1849 and her mother has brought her and the other children to California to start a new life among the pine trees and blue skies. So far all they have found in Lucky Diggings are tents instead of buildings, uncouth gold miners, mud, dirt, and hard work. Bitter and resentful of her lot, California writes to her grandparents in Massachusetts telling them what a nightmare this adventure is turning out to be and wishing more than anything that she could go home to civilized New England with its real buildings, schools, libraries, and good food. In protest California takes on a new name. She refuses to have the name of a place that she hates and so she calls herself Lucy, a name she finds comforting in a homely Back East sort of way.

Grumbling and muttering Lucy helps her mother run a boarding house. Reluctantly she hunts for the pot, she washes clothes and linens, she cooks, and she writes letters. She also reads the one book that she has, “Ivanhoe” and she dreams of going “home.” She also bakes dozens of pies in an effort to raise the money that she needs to pay her way back to Massachusetts.

As the months roll by Lucy starts to make friends. They are a strange and unlikely lot to be sure but the boarders, a runaway slave, a poor family, the postman, and others come to mean a great deal to Lucy – though she does not know it as yet. It is these people too who rally around Lucy’s family when tragedy strikes and later, when a fire burns the town down, it is these people who work alongside the Whipples to keep on going.

In this often funny, startling and bittersweet story we get a remarkable picture of Lucy and her family, and of the people who tried to build new lives for themselves in a hostile country so unlike the places that they were used to. We laugh as we read Lucy’s letters “home” and we sympathize as we listen to her wish that she will one day soon be able to eat clam chowder and have a real house to live in. We also marvel as we watch Lucy change and grow up from being a whiny child to a brave and determined young woman who has finally been able to figure out what her “heart’s desire” really is.