Katherine Paterson's Lyddie: Travel Within and Beyond
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it within us -- or we find it not.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Lyddie, Katherine Paterson's 1991 young adult novel about an impoverished mid-19th-century farm girl who overcomes economic and social obstacles, travel serves as a metaphor for Lydia Worthen's spiritual growth. Forced to work to repay her family's debts, thirteen-year-old Lyddie journeys far beyond her home in her quest for money. Transcending this material goal, she learns self-reliance and becomes her own person. Lyddie thus offers today's adolescent reader an excellent opportunity to learn from historical fiction.
The narrative begins in November, 1843. A huge bear that charges through the Worthens' cabin door convinces Mrs. Worthen that Judgment Day is imminent; consequently, she flees with her two youngest daughters, Rachel and Agnes, to her sister's farm, leaving Lyddie and Charlie behind. Some months later, she writes Lyddie and Charlie (age ten) that they must work to pay debts of their father, who abandoned the family years earlier when he went West to seek his fortune. Consequently, Lyddie sells their farm animals to neighbors. Jeremiah Stevens, a Quaker (a Friend in both senses), generously gives her $25 for the calf sired by his bull even though he is entitled to half of the $25 himself. Leaving her beloved home, Lyddie resolves to return. Luke Stevens, the youngest of the four grown Stephens sons, drives Charlie to Baker's Mill to work as an apprentice, then takes Lyddie to Cutler's Tavern, ten miles away, where she begins her servitude in the kitchen.
Before she crosses the threshold of the tavern, she thinks, "I ain't free anymore. . . once I enter I'm a servant girl -- no better than a black slave" (p. 18). However, the adversity she will endure during her year there will strengthen her character. She learns a great deal from her friend Triphena, the cook, who never married because she refused to be a slave to any man. One day while Lyddie churns milk into butter, Triphena tells her about two frogs that fell into a pail of milk. "One drown right off . . . . But the other kicked and kicked, and in the morning they found him there, floating on a big pat of butter" (p. 28). Determined to be the kicker in the butter churn, Lyddie resolves to turn adversity to her advantage.
In contrast to the generous Luke and Triphena, others make Lyddie's life difficult. Her father had deserted the family, and in order to repay the father's debts her mother made Lyddie a servant to Mrs. Cutler -- "a woman so obviously rich in this world's goods [but] so mean in the use of them" (p. 23). The overseer of the tavern watches Lyddie "like a barn cat on a sparrow," making her rise early and work hard until late and confining her to sleep in an airless attic passage under the eaves.
But even enslaved, Lyddie dreams of a better life. Working at the tavern, she learns of two financial opportunities. Lyddie talks with a young woman, dressed elegantly in pink silk, who clears $2 a week as a factory girl in Lowell, Massachusetts. At this time, Lowell was becoming the center of textile mills in the rapidly expanding American industrialization. Lyddie also hears men talking about the $100 reward for the capture of a runaway slave. Although she has never seen a black, she knows she would jump at the chance to pay off her father's debts with that much money. But her attitude about slavery is about to change. When Triphena gives her a few days off after Mrs. Cutler goes to Boston, Lyddie travels home, unaware that the Stevenses are sheltering a fugitive slave in the Worthen cabin they lease. She quickly sympathizes with the plight of this kind black man, Ezekial Abernathy, who has taught himself to read so that he can preach the Bible to his people. He warns Lyddie, "a little reading is an exceedingly dangerous thing" because it can give a person dreams of freedom. Indeed, this advice -- similar to Francis Bacon's "A little learning is a dangerous thing" -- foreshadows Lyddie's own destiny to become educated. Not only does she forego the $100 reward for a slave, but she also gives him all the money that Luke Stevens had given her for the calf. Overwhelmed with this opportunity for freedom, Ezekial says, "I hope you find your freedom as well, Miss Lydia" (p. 43). Lyddie sees their common bond: she has worked like a slave at the tavern with no money to show for it.
Lyddie's decision to seek her fortune in Lowell comes sooner than expected when Mrs. Cutler fires her for being away without permission. Traveling toward Lowell, Lyddie finds it ironic that slaves flee north to freedom, but she is traveling south. She befriends the coach driver, who gets her settled with his sister, Mrs. Bedlow, at a Lowell mill boardinghouse. However, the hostile environment of the Concord Corporation mill quickly dispels her dreams of endless opportunity. Although Lyddie is freed from Mrs. Cutler's bondage, the reader senses that this level of bondage at the mill is even more destructive because Lyddie chooses it. The descriptive imagery of the factory is ominous, with its fence and locked gate looking like a "jail yard." The cotton mill -- a gigantic six-story brick building -- seems to "glower down" at her through its menacing rows of windows in the cold, gray April drizzle. Inside, the manager, Mr. Graves, "a fat, prosperous-looking man" (p. 59), is rude and impatient with her. Next, a clerk instructs her to sign a contract and gives her a detailed list of the Concord Corporation's regulations -- neither of which she can read. When Lyddie gets a smallpox vaccination, she seems like a slave being branded:"a doctor cruelly gouged her leg and poured a mysterious liquid directly into the wound." When a nasty sore develops, the girls laugh at Lyddie's distress, assuring her she should be grateful that she will never get the pox. She faces even more monsters in the weaving room -- an "inferno" and "hellish city" with its "beasts of prey" (pp. 63-63), the deafening, dangerous, massive looms. Even worse than the machines is the aptly named overseer, Mr. Marsden -- "mars" means "master" in the black dialect, and "den" is an allusion to the factory as the "lion's den."
Protecting Lyddie from him is her mentor and best friend, Diana Goss. Although Diana does not fit the Roman deity's description entirely (virgin goddess of the moon and hunting), she does assume the goddess's role as protector of women. Diana Goss had came to the mill fifteen years earlier as a ten-year-old orphan. Now, Diana moves "from loom to loom like the silent angel in the lion's den, keeping Daniel from harm" (p. 65). Later, the now-expert Lyddie reluctantly takes on this mentor role for Brigid, an Irish girl, and teaches her to operate the dangerous, speeded-up machines, just as Diana had done for Lyddie. Later, she becomes Brigid's guardian angel protecting her from being raped by Marsden.
However, when Diana initially tries to make Lyddie understand that "the nature of slavery [makes] the slave fear freedom," Lyddie angrily replies, "I'm not a slave" (p. 69). Unwilling to see the truth, Lyddie refuses to join an Independence Day rally to express support for the growing movement to adopt a ten-hour work day. At this point Lyddie fails to see beyond her myopic vision of the mill only as a source of money -- not as a master enslaving her and other powerless poor girls. Yet her perception becomes clearer as the days grind on.
The factory girls work thirteen grueling hours a day, six days a week. At 4:30a.m., the wake-up bell clangs; by 5:00, they have cleaned their machines and have begun work; at 7:00, they are "set free" to rush down the street to their boardinghouse for breakfast. Then by 7:35 they return to the inferno'sear-splitting noise. At noon, they get thirty minutes for lunch. In the evening, a bell rings to end their thirteen-hour day. It is no wonder Lyddie empathizes with Oliver Twist when Betsy, her roommate, reads Dickens' book aloud to her. In fact, Betsy even talks of quitting the mill and going out Westto Oberlin College. She is truly an inspiration for Lyddie, who now begins a journey into the world of books in search of self-knowledge. Reading entrances Lyddie so much that she spends her hard-earned wages on an elegantly-bound edition of Oliver Twist. She copies pages and places them on the frames of her machines. Being transported into Dickens' world helps her endure the dehumanizing drudgery. Later, she hears that Dickens had toured her mill; in fact, Diana gives her Dickens' American Notes for General Circulation (1842), a rather romantic view of Lowell mills in contrast to "the satanic mills of England" (p. 132). Dickens' book, however, omits descriptions of lung disease, blacklisting, sexual harassment, and other realities of Lowell's mills. Lyddie also ignores these evils because the metaphorical "bear" of a narrow spirit still rages within her as long as money controls her.
To earn more money, Lyddie becomes a superior worker -- fast, nimble, diligent in tending to more machines "speeded up to demon pace" in unbearable heat. Her high pay reflects her proficiency. Based on piece rates, she makes $2.50 above her $1.75 deduction for room and board a week. However, she becomes one of the living dead. She works as mechanically as her looms, ignoring her surroundings and taking no pleasure from food. She even passes up spiritual nourishment at church because she is too exhausted. However, because Lyddie makes more money the more hours she works, she refuses to sign the ten-hour-day petition that Diana circulates. Lyddie too vividly recalls working sixteen-hour days for Mrs. Cutler (who sent Mrs. Worthen fifty cents a week -- if she remembered), so she does not want to jeopardize her improved financial situation.
Yet, Lyddie begins to waver about her good fortune with the mill. She hears stories of mill workers' accidents; for example, a girl had broken her neck in a fall and a man had been crushed to death loading cloth onto a railroad car. When Diana takes up a collection for a little Irish girl who was badly hurt when she caught her hair in spinning machinery, Lyddie refuses to "give a contribution to some foreigner when she had her own poor baby sister to think of" (p. 101). In fact, Lyddie even resents sending money to her mother because she loves seeing her account balance grow each payday. Unwilling to see how mill girls are cruelly exploited, Lyddie gets upset when Betsy, a mill worker since the age of ten, sings this protest song:Oh! Isn't it a pity such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave. (p. 92)
Insulted by being called a slave, Lyddie fiercely responds, "I ain't a slave! .. . I ain't a slave" (p. 92). Although Lyddie senses her growing anxiety when Betsy says the Bible encourages the struggle against injustice, she still denies the reality of the mill's cruel exploitation. For example, when Marsden proudly shows her off to foreign dignitaries touring the mill, bragging that she is "one of our best girls," Lyddie smiles politely but feels "like a prize sow at a village auction" (p. 86). The girls know Lyddie well; one says, "Our Lyddie loves money too much to risk trouble" (p. 95) -- undoubtedly hinting that "the love of money is the root of all evil" (Timothy 1:10).
In spite of her desperation to earn still more money to regain the family farm, circumstances beyond her control soon broaden her vision so that she can clearly see the nature of her enslavement. One day she is cut badly on the temple by a broken-loose shuttle. Overseer Marsden, sickened by all the blood, screams for the other girls to take her away. After Lyddie is well enough tore turn to work, Marsden makes sexual advances toward her, patting her and saying "You're my prize girl." She thinks, "I'm not your girl. I'm not anybody's girl but my own" (p. 109) and moves quickly to escape his grasp.
A new Lyddie emerges as a result of her head injury and the cruel twists of fate that quickly ensue: her baby sister Agnes dies; her mother is committed to an insane asylum and later dies; Lyddie takes custody of little sister Rachel; and both she and Rachel endure serious illnesses. Surviving all these adversities makes Lyddie even stronger. She buys two books, a Bible and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself -- both reminding her of Ezekial's comforting voice. She likes Psalms best. Her Bible-reading foreshadows Lyddie's move away from self-interest. Inspired by these Biblical songs, she uses them as models for composing her own: "By the rivers of Merrimack and Concord there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered . . ." (p. 156). Freed from the shackles of illiteracy, Lyddie achieves a new strength of mind and body.
The novel's climax occurs when she courageously saves Brigid from the lecherous Marsden's sexual attack. Without thinking of the dire consequences, Lyddie dumps the fire bucket, full of stagnant water, on his head. Vengefully, Marsden has Lyddie fired for moral "turpitude." Not understanding the meaning of"turpitude," she cannot defend herself in front of Mr. Graves. However, Lyddie has no regrets. She has protected Brigid as if she were her sister; in fact, she remembers acting just as instinctively to save her little sister three years earlier when the bear who rampaged through their cabin left only when it got its head stuck in a kettle of boiling oatmeal. The images of victory --defeating the menacing bear with the kettle over its head and defeating the menacing man with the bucket over his head -- strike similar chords. The parallel becomes clear as Lyddie thinks, "Better to feed Rachel and Agnes to the bear" (p. 162) than not rescue this innocent child Brigid from the monster, Marsden. Her priorities have changed, enabling her to place moral principles over material gain.
Lyddie has traveled far, both beyond her home and within herself, by developing a social conscience. Before she leaves Lowell, she buys a dictionary, looks up"turpitude," and is astounded. Certainly she is not of vile, based, depraved, or shameful character. She is merely ignorant, but not for long, she vows. Being fired unjustly motivates Lyddie to make butter rather than to drown in the milk.
No longer enslaved in body and spirit to the mill, she realizes the freedom that money can buy. She has saved $243 in wages and the generous $50 Ezekial sends her to repay the $25 loan she gave him. Ezekial has adopted the surname Freeman after reaching freedom in Canada. The former slave inspires Lyddie to be free also.
By the novel's end, she comes full circle as she walks back to her Vermont cabin, which the Stevenses purchased. Luke Stevens, who visited her in Lowell, proposes marriage, but Lyddie will not remain in the exact spot where she began her journey. Freed by money and greater self-knowledge, she gently rejects Luke's marriage proposal. She is not sure where she is going until next Luke asks her softly, "Then if thee will not stay, where will thee go?" As Lyddie begins to reply "I'm off," she knows what she has to do. She is off "to stare down the bear! The bear that she has thought all these years is outside herself, but now, truly, knows is in her own narrow spirit. She would stare down all the bears!" With "her whole body alight with the thrill of her new-found decision, she continues, "I'm off to Ohio. There is a college there that will take a woman just like a man" (p. 181). Lyddie knows that years later she will return home to the Vermont mountains and accept Luke's proposal only after she has found herself. Reborn in mind and spirit from her three-year ordeal, she vows to herself, "I won't come back weak and beaten down and because I have nowhere else to go. No, I will not be a slave, even to myself .. ." (p. 182). Lyddie's journey, beginning with a hungry bear's search for food, ends with her own search for knowledge -- to satisfy her own hunger, to be her own person. She travels beyond her home, returns, and begins another journey, a spiritual quest within herself. She has learned self-reliance.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous 1841 essay "Self Reliance" was written in Concord, Massachusetts, not too far away from Lowell. Perhaps Paterson alludes to this prophet of self-sufficiency in naming Mary Emerson, an optimistic young woman who organizes the factory girls to petition for ten-hour workdays. Mary's vision inspires the new Lyddie, even though by the time Lyddie comes to add her name to the petition, she learns that the Massachusetts legislature has already ignored the four thousand signatures submitted. The important point, however, is that she finally makes a commitment to act against injustice. Her growth from the naivete of adolescence to the experience of young adulthood marks the end of a long journey. Now she can embark on another rite of passage as she travels to Oberlin College in Ohio.
Perhaps, at Oberlin, Lyddie will read these words from Emerson's "Self-Reliance": "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world." Lydia Worth en already understands the wisdom of Emerson's advice, "Let a man then know his worth." Her travels within and beyond have taught her the truth of the final words in "Self-Reliance": "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."
Laura is an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina at Sumter.