Excerpts for Borrowed Names : Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and their Daughters


LAURA INGALLS was born in the big woods of Wisconsin, but within a few years called many other places home: the Kansas prairies, a dugout by Plum Creek in Minnesota, covered wagons rolling westward, and at last a little house near Silver Lake in the Dakota Territory. There her family survived many blizzards, but one long winter they almost starved before Almanzo Wilder drove horses through the deep snow to get wheat and saved them all.

Almanzo began courting Laura when she was fifteen years old. Her father didn't object, though her mother believed Laura was more smitten with Almanzo's half-wild horses. At eighteen, Laura stood before a preacher, who agreed that a bride should promise to honor and love but not obey, and changed her name to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Almanzo called his wife Bessie to distinguish her from his sister, who was also named Laura. Their daughter, Rose, who was born about a year after the wedding, would call her Mama Bess.


Rose sees blood on the linen

before her grandmother plunges

the sheets in a tub. Pa scrubs dirt

from his hands. What ever happens,

fields must be tended.

Mama Bess goes back to bed. Again.

Won't you get up?

Soon, Mama says, but Rose is hungry.

She puts a stick in the woodstove.

When the kindling, burning at one end,

turns too hot to hold,

she drops it.

Fire creeps

across the floor and laps the wall.

Air, once quiet and invisible,

spits sparks and orange flames.

Burning tablecloths twist like memory.

Where are you?

Smoke stings her eyes. Someone grabs her arm

and a fistful of forks. They rush

from the crackling, tumbling house.

Outside, Rose breathes the stink of burning chairs,

bedding, sacks of flour, jars of plum preserves,

beans left soaking in a yellow bowl.

The house becomes an oven, ruining

broom and dustpan,

the sewing box with its tomato- shaped pincushion,

an embroidered needle case, pewter buttons,

scavenged ribbon,

spools of crimson and sky- blue thread.

Little is saved but old dresses, silverware,

and a platter decorated with a sheaf of wheat, bordered

with a prayer: Give us this day our daily bread.

Under a blackened cottonwood tree,

its slim shade useless now,

Pa leans on his cane. What happened?

Mama says, I shut the door to sweep,

so dust wouldn't get in the kitchen.

A spark from the woodstove caught the floor.

Rose, three years old, cries, I'm sorry.

We built one house. We can build another,

Pa says. What matters is we're safe and all together.

Mama nods. It was an accident.

She turns to sort through what might be saved.

A wilderness of cracked china, ashes,

days when safety

was as common as a roof. She folds her black

wedding dress and tells Rose, You did nothing wrong.

But then she whispers,

We won't speak of this fire again.


Rose's grandparents welcome the family

to their home where everything is kept in place

so Aunt Mary, whose blue eyes

can't see past their own shine,

knows which tin holds sugar and which flour

and exactly how many steps

to take between the ivy and geraniums she waters.

Rose minds her grandmother, who says,

Keep away from the woodstove.

Rose can feel even Aunt Mary's blind eyes on her.

Grandpa plays traveling songs on his fiddle

while Mama flips through brochures about farmland.

She, Pa, and Rose move to Minnesota,

where the cold winters deepen the pain in Pa's legs.

They journey to Florida to grow oranges,

but Mama finds Southern air too steamy.

Back in South Dakota, wolves howl. Rain beats

down the wheat and corn fields one summer.

The next July, flax and oats wither without rain.

Rose says, I want a brother or sister.

Hush. Mama Bess distracts her with a story

of a land where bright red apples grow.

She works for a dressmaker sewing buttonholes,

tucking in the short edges of cloth,

striving for stitches too small to see, trimming thread.

Her stiff hands move up and down

twelve hours till sundown,

six days a week. She earns a dollar a day.

At last she unclasps the needle, stops at the bank

for a one-hundred-dollar bill she hides

in the lap- sized desk Pa made and sanded smooth.

She says, Don't touch.

I know, Rose replies, obedient at eight, though

she loves to watch her mother's hand slide

over the slanting surface covered with green felt,

the crack of brass hinges when the lid is lifted.

Mama warns, Don't tell a soul what's in that box.


Pa cuts black oilcloth to cover and make curtains

for a carriage they load with a bedspring,

feather mattress, quilts, pots, Mama's desk,

and a coop of noisy chickens.

Is this their last summer on the prairie,

their last good- bye?

Rose throws her arms around Grandpa,

who smells of wood smoke and hay.

Grandma's apron smells of cinnamon and flour.

Rose touches Aunt Mary's hair, the color of flames.

Pa hitches up horses that pull them to the plains,

where the world is all land and sky,

the only sounds, birds, wind, grasses.

As dust billows, Rose bumps her mother's steady arm.

Pa lets Rose hold the reins.

She snaps them, willing the tired horses to trot faster.

Pa takes back the lead and shouts, Whoa!

They rest the horses at creeks.

Pa spits watermelon seeds.

Rose tries to spit farther. She and Mama Bess hold up their skirts to wade.

Women come here for water,

but linger for words.

Where are you from? Where are you going?

Mama sniffs the heads of bundled babies.

She watches children

play shadow tag. The running water

seems to sing not here, not yet.

Some nights, Mama hauls out her lap-sized desk.

Rose watches her pearl- handled pen glide

like a lullaby. What are you doing?

I want to remember. Her hand makes small circles

before she shuts the lid on secrets.

As darkness and stars fill the sky, Mama talks

of olden days, back when she was called Laura

and won a prize for memorizing the most Bible verses.

One hard winter when her family ran out of coal,

they twisted hay to burn. After the flour was gone,

they ground wheat in a coffee mill to make bread,

almost as sweet as milk and honey.

When water got scarce,

they prayed for rain. They relied on self and neighbor.

Sometimes tales end with Pa

taking Grandpa's line: Go west.

Mama mimics Grandma: What ever you say, Charles.

They laugh at words Mama never uses

except in these stories

where she's a child until she meets Pa,

who risks his life in a storm to get everyone food.

They find a preacher who agrees

to take obey out of the wedding vows.

One night Mama and Pa walk in the moonlight.

Rose is alone in the covered carriage, though neighbors

are a quick call away.

Rose runs her hands over the green felt,

then opens her mother's desk. The brass hinges squeak.

She doesn't find a corner of sky, but hears

the river roll like Mama's hand over paper,

a quiet claim: Here I am.

Excerpted from Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins.
Copyright 2010 by Jeannine Atkins.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.