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In her novel Lyddie, Katherine Paterson uses dialect, figurative language, and symbolism to tell the story of Lyddie Worthen, a nineteenth-century farm girl who becomes a mill worker. Lyddie speaks in the dialect of the Vermont mountains where she was born, and the author records Lyddie’s dialect, both spoken and written, to reveal and develop her character. As the novel begins, Lyddie’s first words are “Don’t nobody yell. . . . Just back up slow and quiet to the ladder and climb up to the loft.” Lyddie speaks in her normal dialect, with all its grammatical variations in verb tense, negation, and syntax (“Don’t nobody yell”) and in irregular adverbs (“slow” and “quiet” rather than the standard “slowly” and “quietly”). Lyddie also often attaches the question “ey?” to the end of her sentences, and she frequently uses the word “ain’t.”

Lyddie’s writing—like her mother’s—similarly reflects her regional dialect and minimal education. In her letter to Lyddie, for instance, Mattie Worthen writes, “The world hav not come to the end yit. But we can stil hop.” Their mother’s words become something of a joke and a motto for Lyddie and Charlie as they leave the farm and pursue their new lives. They can “stil hop”; they are still alive and still able to work and look forward to better days.

As the novel progresses, Lyddie’s speech and writing change, reflecting her increasing education. In Lowell, Lyddie often makes an effort to talk more like the other girls, who tell her that her Vermont dialect and her insertions of “creation” and “ey” make her stand out from the crowd. Lyddie pays attention to her speech, trying to correct herself, but when she gets upset, her old mode of speaking resurfaces. Lyddie’s writing also improves. She still makes occasional errors in spelling and grammar, but she is now able to write sentences like “Please get yourself and little Rachel good food and if possible a warm shawl for the winter,” and she checks her spelling and construction against Oliver Twist.

Paterson also packs her writing with creative figures of speech that add interest and depth to the story. When Lyddie and Charlie receive the letter from their mother telling them that they have been hired out, Charlie tries to make a joke of it. Lyddie laughs, too, but it is “the kind of laughter that caught like briars in her chest and felt very much like pain.” This metaphor is more effective than merely relating that her laughter contains anguish, for it evokes the physical dimension of Lyddie’s pained emotions.

When Lyddie first looks upon Lowell, Massachusetts, she thinks that the buildings are “crowed before her as sheep in a shearing shed.” The simile, however, works only to a point, Lyddie reflects, for these “sheep” are not “soft and murmuring” but “huge and foreboding.” Lyddie tries her best to relate her new experiences to her former life, but she cannot quite do so. The mill, too, provides material for vivid language. Its wooden staircase clings “for dear life to the side of the building,” in a vivid touch of personification. The machines in the weaving room are like creatures from a nightmare “come to life,” and the shuttles are as “beasts of prey through the tall forests of warp threads.” Lyddie is struck by the noise, which she compares to “a hundred stagecoaches all inside one’s skull, banging their wheels against the bone.” Even the air is “a soup of dust and lint.” In an allusive metaphor, Diana stands beside Lyddie “like the silent angel in the lion’s den, keeping Daniel from harm,” a nod to the Book of Daniel. These images and metaphors show readers what Lyddie is experiencing, rendering an unfamiliar setting with rich sensory details and striking comparisons to help readers envision the often chaotic scene of the mill. 

The figurative language continues as the novel progresses, providing more vivid detail to enhance the story. When Lyddie hears Rachel cough, for instance, the “wretched hacking sound” saws “through her rib cage straight into her heart.” She knows she must get her sister away from Lowell, but even when Charlie arrives with the Phinneys’ offer to let Rachel live with them, Lyddie thinks a “rusty blade” has pierced her heart. Again, Lyddie describes her emotions using tangible experiences from her life on the farm, trying to make her feelings comprehensible even when they are barely manageable.

Lyddie also tends to think in terms of symbols, and the novel employs symbolism throughout to deepen the meaning of its events. When Lyddie sells the calf, for instance, she holds onto the money from the sale, counting it over and over. The money becomes a symbol of security and hope for her—security in that it can provide for her family and hope in that it might one day bring her family back together again. Clothing also becomes symbolic for Lyddie. Her old homespun clothes represent her life on the farm and her poverty. The clothing she receives from Mistress Cutler points to Lyddie’s lack of freedom; the dresses and boots do not really belong to her, and when she wears them, she is reminded of her position of servitude. When she leaves the tavern, Lyddie puts on her worn homespun and leaves the other clothing behind.

The most prominent symbol in the story, however, is the bear. In the opening chapter, Lyddie stares down a real bear to protect her family, but that bear soon becomes a symbol for every subsequent challenge Lyddie faces. The intruder in the cabin is a bear to be faced, but he turns out to be Ezekial. The machines at the mill with all their speed and danger are just “great, clumsy bears,” and Lyddie learns to master them. Mr. Marsden, too, is a bear whom Lyddie must conquer when he assaults Brigid. For a while, though, when Lyddie loses her job, it seems that the bear has won, that it has “stolen her home, her family, her work, her good name.” Yet it has not won, because Lyddie comes to realize that the bear is nothing outside herself but rather “in her own narrow spirit.” The bear Lyddie must vanquish is herself, her fears, her sense of worthlessness and hopelessness, and her inhibitions. At the end of the novel, Lyddie vows to confront these forces and pursue her dreams.


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As is often the case with historical novels, setting is extremely important in Lyddie. Much of the book is devoted to recreating the lives of the young women who worked in American factories during the first half of the nineteenth century. The novel, which begins in 1843, is set both in rural Vermont and industrial Massachusetts. The protagonist, Lyddie Worthen, has been raised in a cabin surrounded by pastures dotted with sugar bush. Isolated from society and providing little shelter against wild animals and the harsh weather, the cabin becomes a prison for Lyddie and her younger brother, Charlie, who must spend a winter there alone. Later, it becomes a temporary hideout for the runaway slave, Ezekial Abernathy.

When Lyddie is finally forced to leave the farm, she journeys to an industrialized world, first working in Cutler's Tavern, which is three times the size of the Worthen Cabin. Lyddie eventually goes to Lowell, Massachusetts, where she takes a job with the Concord Manufacturing Company, working in the weaving room. Like the Worthen cabin, the mill also imprisons Lyddie. At first, the factory seems like a nightmare with gigantic looms that have come to life and noise which sounds like "a hundred stagecoaches all inside one's skull, banging their wheels against the bone." The weaving room is also prison like, with locked windows and closed doors. While the wages Lyddie earns at the factory seem her only hope for buying the Worthen farm, she and her co-workers are soon exploited, the victims of poor working conditions, greedy bosses, and sexual harassment. Lyddie comes to feel she is not much different than the slave she has helped escape. While Lyddie ultimately is able to leave and head for college, the factory ruins the health and reputations of many of her friends, casting out those who become weak or who seek social reform.

Literary Qualities

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While at first glance Lyddie may appear to be little more than a reworking of the diaries kept by factory workers in Concord, Massachusetts, it is a complex book which can be read on several levels. On one level, it is an adventure- accomplishment romance, a sort of realistic hero tale about a poor girl who rescues herself with hard work and the aid of various "godmothers." Like heroes of myths and legend, Lyddie struggles against monsters (bears and giant mechanical shuttles), aided by her courage and intelligence, as well as various mentors. The book is also an effective historical novel, a believable story which communicates the nature of factory life through interesting characters.

Lyddie is also a consciously literary work, using symbols and literary allusions to help develop its ideas. The book clearly parallels Dickens's Oliver Twist, one of the books Lyddie reads. The protagonists of both books are orphaned and find themselves working in unbearable situations from which they escape to big cities on foot. They both subsequently become part of new groups of young people (of their same gender) from which they ultimately must be rescued. It is because her life is so similar to that of Oliver Twist that his story appeals so strongly to Lyddie. Later in Lyddie, life at the factory is contrasted to Dickens' depiction of it in American Notes.

Lyddie is also encouraged by a number of symbolic images and phrases which help her make sense of her life. For example, the bear which first attacks the Worthen family comes to represent all of the obstacles thrown in her path. The frog in the milk pail reminds her to keep struggling; the song, "I Will Not Be a Slave," helps her reassess her situation at the factory. Most importantly, her mother's misspelled phrase, "we can still hop," represents the hopes that sustain Lyddie throughout the novel. In telling Lyddie's story, Paterson, much like Dickens, also uses symbolic names. Among others, the Biblical "Lydia" and the Roman deities "Diana" and "Mars" all bear similarities to their counterparts, Lyddie Worthen, Diana Goss, and Mr. Marsden.

Social Sensitivity

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The novel sensitively handles a number of social issues which grow out of the lives of the women who worked at the Lowell factories. Both Lyddie and Brigid are victims of sexual harassment and, while Lyddie stands up for her rights, she loses her job as a result. Lyddie's mentor and co-worker, Diana Goss, spearheads an attempt to better working conditions for the factory girls, dramatizing the conflicts that have sometimes arisen between labor and management. She leaves the factory, however, because she is pregnant, not because of her crusade for social reform. While the book effectively depicts the often dehumanizing conditions of factory work, it is equally critical of the conditions Lyddie encounters while working in a tavern and on the Worthen farm.

At times the novel questions extreme and fanatical religious fundamentalism, particularly when Lyddie's mother is convinced that the world is about to end. Quaker Stevens and his family, however, are treated more sympathetically and it is hinted that someday Lyddie may marry Luke Stevens. The novel does suggest that nineteenth- century women, particularly those who were poor, were often treated as second-class citizens. Paterson dramatizes the attempts of a few who worked towards gaining freedom and independence, attempting to create better lives for themselves. In general, Paterson balances abusive bosses, religious fanatics, and pious snobs with characters like Quaker Stevens, Triphena, and Diana Goss, who are unselfish and ultimately look out for Lyddie.

For Further Reference

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Babbitt, Natalie. "Working Girl." New York Times Book Review (May 19, 1991): 24. In this review, children's novelist Natalie Babbitt praises the novel, particularly its historical background and the way in which it rises above the caricatures of its counterpart, Oliver Twist.

Kemp, Sandra. "Working Worlds." Times Educational Supplement 8 (November 1991): 38. This review highlights the novel's relationship to the works of Charles Dickens.

Namovicz, Gene Inyart. "Katherine Paterson." Horn Book 57 (1981): 394- 399. A biographical sketch written when Paterson won the Newbery Award for Jacob Have I Loved.

Odean, Kathleen. Review. School Library Journal 37 (February 1991): 82. A short, positive review which calls attention to the novel's interest in reading.

Paterson, Katherine. Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing for Children. New York: Elsevier/Nelson, 1981. A collection of Paterson's essays and reviews which, among other things, reveal her philosophy of writing and her attitudes towards historical fiction.

"Literature and Life." English Journal 80,5 (1991): 11. Paterson discusses the power of literature over children, one of the topics of Lyddie.

"Katherine Paterson." Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults. Edited by Don Gallo. Urbana: NCTE, 1990: 159-161. A short, autobiographical statement by Paterson.

Sutherland, Zena. Review. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 44 (Fall 1991): 151. Sutherland praises the novel's focus and solid characterization.

Watson, Elizabeth. Review. Horn Book 64 (1991): 338-339. A review which praises the novel's plot, setting, and language.

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