Cushman, Karen. 1996. THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE. New York, NY: Clarion Books. ISBN: 0395728061.
In this first-person historical novel, award-winning author Karen Cushman brings the California Gold Rush to life. Lucy, the protagonist, describes her experiences, and her reactions to them in a first-person narrative, interspersed with letters she writes to her grandparents back East. Readers get an idea of what kind of hardships people encountered on the trail of the elusive California gold, and what kinds of people took those risks. After Lucy’s father dies, her mother takes the four children to California, following his dream. They find a shanty town with a saloon, a boarding house, and only two other women. Summers are hot, winters are cold, and staying fed is a full-time job. The good news is that when true disaster strikes, everyone bands together to survive, and usually, they do.
Cushman does an excellent job of keeping the reader engaged, using a variety of unique facts, personal details about the situation and the characters, and a strong narrative voice. Not only does the reader learn fifty-two words for whiskey, but also that not everyone survives the hardships of the West. Young adults will easily identify with the young protagonist who doesn’t want to hunt and get dirty, and doesn’t understand why they left their comfortable home. Lucy (aka California) often asks why things have to change—and this is a very good universal question.
From her fear about forgetting her father’s features to her discovery that sometimes she does have the right answer, and it is her mother who has to do the listening, California Whipple experiences the difficulty and the pride of coming of age under difficult circumstances. To the reader’s great delight, this story’s backdrop is well-researched and detailed so clearly that the dry hot wind of the summer and the acrid stench of the fire that sweeps through town will parch readers throats as it does California’s. Additional universal themes include dealing with loss, death, self-absorbed adolescence, hard work, and making new friends.
It is so easy to get caught up in the storyline that learning about the reality and history of the gold rush along the way is unremarkable—an excellent trait in a historical novel for young adults. The storyline only seems to falter in its historical believability at the very end—when California Whipple is able to support herself as a librarian when even the general store has yet to be rebuilt, and all around her is poverty.
School Library Journal: “Cushman's heroine is a delightful character, and the historical setting is authentically portrayed. Lucy's story, as the author points out in her end notes, is the story of many pioneer women who exhibited great strength and courage as they helped to settle the West. The book is full of small details that children will love.”
Starred Review, Booklist: “Many readers will recognize their own dislocations in Lucy's reluctant adventure. In a vividly written afterword, Cushman places Lucy's personal narrative in its historical context.”
Publisher’s Weekly: “California rebels by renaming herself Lucy and by hoarding the gold dust and money she earns baking dried apple and vinegar pies, saving up for a journey home. Over years of toil and hardship, Lucy realizes, somewhat predictably, that home is wherever she makes one. As in her previous books, Newbery Award winner Cushman (The Midwife's Apprentice) proves herself a master at establishing atmosphere. Here she also renders serious social issues through sharply etched portraits: a runaway slave who has no name of his own, a preacher with a congregation of one, a raggedy child whose arms are covered in bruises.”
==> Use this book as an introduction to a California Gold Rush history lesson.
==> Encourage readers to discuss their own experiences of moving to a new place or a new school, and the emotional hardships of change, loss, and starting over. Ask how this is the same or different, based on the historical context of California Whipple vs the state of California today.
==> Discuss how towns are formed, and research what happened to most gold mine towns over the years.
==> Research other stories about the lives and experiences of women, children, and other minorities in the unsettled West.