Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ain't Nothin' but a Gold-digger--a review of THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE by Karen Cushman

Our Physical Science Classes are in the Media Center today researching Rocks and Minerals. When I was pulling books about gold, I just happened to see a photograph of Deadwood Gulch in the Black Hills of South Dakota circa 1876. In the shadowy, blurred black and white, I see men…some jaunty looking and fresh, others rather scraggly, bearded. And though I can’t be sure, there is one woman. The text reads, “Gold strikes still happen in modern times. But the stampedes of the nineteenth century are gone forever. The places where gold is easily retrieved have, for the most part, been found” (48). How fortunate for us that we have historical fiction writers who bring those "gone forever" places back to us in living color. And what greater fortune that Karen Cushman has recreated the time and place in a coming of age story of a young, teenage girl in The Ballad of Lucy Whipple.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman

California Whipple’s parents always dreamed of moving West. Even after California’s father dies, her mother is determined that she will move the family to Lucky Diggins, California, at the heart of the Gold Rush. California is less than thrilled, and in a series of letters home, declares that she is now to be called Lucy. In Lucy Whipple, Cushman has created a plain-spoken character who doesn’t pull any punches, and Cushman’s book doesn’t either. She does a particularly adept job at dealing with the harsh realities faced by settlers such as battling sickness, hunger, and the forces of nature. The death of Lucy’s brother Butte is touching without being maudlin. Cushman balances the difficulties of pioneer life through humor, humanity and the sheer natural beauty of California in the 1800s. The picture of Clyde the preacher, who is so tall, his feet touch the ground when he rides into camp on a donkey is only one example of the ballad-like exaggeration Cushman subtly works into the writing.

There is a lot to love in this book. Cushman’s partial use of Lucy’s letters to tell parts of the story add to the authenticity of the work, as they allow the author to share details about the Gold Rush era in a very natural way. Though some of Lucy’s language seemed stereotypical at first (the use of the words tarnation and dag diggety! had me expecting the phrase What the Sam Hill?), I came to love Lucy more and more as I experienced her delights and disappointments. Lucy’s world is so well-developed that I found myself wishing that the lesser developed stories of her friends in Lucky Diggins could be told as well (an escaped slave named Bernard, the old coot Amos Frogge, Lucy’s courageous mama). Lucy’s search to belong, thus creating her own identity, are themes readers in any time and place can appreciate; but Lucy’s story is what they will enjoy.

Awards and Reviews
Booklist Editors’ Choice
School Library Journal, Best Books of the Year
New York Public Library, 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
Booklinks Lasting Connections Selection
Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies
Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts
IRA Teachers’ Choice
Texas Lone Star Reading List Selection
School Library Journal, Best Books of the Year
Booklist Editor’s Choice
John and Patricia Beatty Award
ABC Children’s Booksellers Choice Award

“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 I full of small details that children will love.”—Bruce Anne Shook, School Library Journal (August 1996)

“Many readers will recognize their own dislocations in Lucy’s reluctant adventure.”—Hazel Rochman, Booklist (August 1996)

Lesson Extensions

Personal Connections. Paula Laurita at Bella Online uses Lucy’s struggle in her difficult circumstances as a way for teenage girls to reflect on the struggles of their own personal experiences. She has created a journal writing activity, based on Lucy’s letters.

Historical Connections. Students studying any era can benefit from writing letters from the point of view of any character in history. Using Lucy’s letters as an example, students could create a series of three letters incorporating historical facts about any given era (Civil War, Revolutionary War, World War 2, etc.). In addition, students could research historical photos or artifacts from the time, and include them in a portfolio assignment.

Social Studies. Teacher Jill Esquivel has developed a 5th Grade lesson plan incorporating Geography and History standards. Students work in cooperative groups to plan a journey along the Wilderness Road or Oregon Trail and write a “post card home.” She cites the book as one resource for helping make pioneer journeys real for students.

Vital Stats
Cushman, Karen. (1996). The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. New York: Clarion. ISBN 978-0395728062.

Hellman, Hal. (1996). The Story of Gold. New York: Franklin Watts.

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