EXCERPT: Off to See the Emperor — Orson Scott Card

A four-room school in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, September 1889

The teacher introduced six-year-old Frank Joslyn Baum as one of the new first graders. “Young Frank’s father is Mr. L. Frank Baum, editor of our town’s newspaper. Does anyone know the name of the newspaper?”

One hand went up—that of a nine-year-old girl. Frank noticed that the bands of fabric around the bottom of her dress were darker, the colors deeper. The dress must always have been too big for the girl, but over the years during which she wore it, the hem had been let down three times, exposing fabric less faded by the sun. Frank liked to notice things like that and figure out what they meant.

The teacher seemed reluctant to call on the girl. “Why don’t you tell us the name of your father’s paper?” the teacher asked him.

She knows,” said Frank, pointing at the girl, who was now sitting with both hands tucked under her bottom.

“Do you think she does?” asked the teacher with an air of condescension. “Dotty, what were you raising your hand to say?”

Dotty looked straight at Frank. “Your father’s store went bust,” she said. “He owned Baum’s Bazaar.”

Frank blushed. It was shameful that the store went out of business; no one spoke of it.

“I fail to see what that has to do with the name of the newspaper,” said the teacher. Then, in a voice loud enough for all to hear, she said to Frank, “Now you know why I rarely choose to call on Dotty.”

“It was a wonderful store,” said Dotty. “Your father gave Auntie Bess credit, and it got us through the winter.”

“That is enough, Dotty,” said the teacher.

Auntie Bess. Frank knew Bess Krassner was one of the customers whose failure to pay had led to the bankruptcy. Frank didn’t miss much. Mrs. Krassner was a stern woman who frightened most children with her cold glare, but Frank was not afraid of her. He could look right at her even when she glared.

“The newspaper is the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer,” said Dotty, “and Mr. Baum writes the column ‘Our Landlady.’”

Then Dotty sat down.

Frank read his father’s column every week, every word. He should not be in first grade, but the teacher would not hear of advancing him. “Children learn raggedly unless they have guidance,” she had said. “Whatever he thinks he has learned on his own will almost certainly have to be taught to him again, but now in its proper order.”

When Mother told this to Father, he laughed. “I’m sure our poor boy has his letters all inside out. She’ll set him straight.”

At first Frank wanted to tell his father that he did not have any letters inside out, but then he realized that Father was joking. Father always made everything either funny or very dramatic. Father was an actor at heart. He used to own a theater but it burned down. Father had written plays. Mother often said that a man like that had no business running a store. Frank heard everything. He remembered everything.

After school, instead of walking straight home, he went up to the older girl, Dotty. “Why do you care about my father?”

“I don’t,” said Dotty. “And I don’t care about you.”

“Why did you say that about him giving credit? Your aunt never paid him back.”

“She will,” said Dotty. “She is a woman of integrity.” She turned her back on him and started walking along the dusty road, the opposite direction from Frank’s way home. He followed behind her.

“It’s too late to pay him now,” said Frank. “The store’s already out of business.”

“It is never too late to pay a debt,” said Dotty.

“It’s too late for it to do any good,” said Frank.

She turned to face him. “Do you want me to poke you in the nose?”

“Why did you tell about your family needing credit to get through the winter?”

“One must never be ashamed of poverty, my Auntie Bess says. One must only be ashamed of wealth that one does not share with those in need. Your father shared. Auntie Bess says that makes him a good man, even if he does hate Indians.”

“Everybody hates Indians,” said Frank. “They scalp people and they’re savages.”

“It’s also good for children to have minds of their own, and not to echo the opinions of adults.”

“Your aunt says.”

“I am wise enough to pay close attention to my aunt.”

“So you echo her opinions,” said Frank.

Dotty glared at him, but it was not as icy a glare as Bess Krassner’s. “I have independently reached the conclusion that my aunt is right.”

“About everything?” asked Frank.

“So far,” said Dotty.

“Why are you bothering to talk to a six-year-old?” asked Frank. “The other fourth graders don’t talk to us younger children.”

“One must be especially kind to the little and stupid,” said Dotty, “or they will not get wiser along with bigger.”

“Auntie Bess again?” asked Frank.

“No,” said Dotty. “It was one of my own. Here’s why I’m talking to you. First, your father is a good man, so I owe courtesy to his son. Second, you can already read and write as well as a fourth grader, but you don’t make a show of it. Third, you followed me and won’t shut up.”

She stepped out of the lane and into the brown scruffy grass beside it.

“Where are you going?” asked Frank.

“I’m following the road,” said Dotty. She continued walking farther into the grass, heading for a cornfield.

“No you’re not,” said Frank. “It goes that way.”

That road goes that way,” said Dotty. “Feel free to follow that road, if you want.”

“What road are you following, then?”

“I always follow the yellow road,” said Dotty. She walked on resolutely.

[End Excerpt]