Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky is one of those great books that I feel are often overlooked by young readers, librarians, and teachers. With not an especially attractive cover by today's standards, this novel, written only seven years ago, offers readers a delicious dose of the pioneer spirit set during the last year of World War I. Those who enjoyed the Laura Ingalls saga in Little House on the Prairie will certainly enjoy Hattie Big Sky and the recent sequel, Hattie Ever After.

Sixteen year old Hattie Inez Brooks lives with her Aunt Ivy and Uncle Holt in Arlington, Iowa. Hattie lost both her parents when she was very young; her father was a miner who died from lung disease and her mother died a few years later from a fever. After her Mama died, her Aunt Seah took her in and was very loving towards her. But after Aunt Seah became too elderly to care for Hattie, she was passed from one relative to the next until she ended up in the home of her distant cousin, Uncle Holt. Aunt Ivy was not happy about this and now that Hattie is sixteen, she wants her to move out and work.

Hattie has a good friend in Charlie Hawley, a boy who stuck up for her, walked her to school and back every day. He also taught her how to through a baseball properly and gave her a cat named Mr. Whiskers. Charlie has just enlisted and is on his way to England and eventually to France. Although Hattie, along with the rest of the town believes Charlie is sweet on another girl, she decides to write him.

One day Hattie receives a letter informing her that her Uncle Chester has bequeathed his 320 acre land claim in Montana. The letter was written by Chester's neighbour, Perilee Meuller, who writes to tell Hattie that if she wants to come out to claim the land, they will help her. Knowing she has no future in Iowa in home where she is not loved,  Hattie decides to take a chance and move to Montana. So in January of 1918, she and Mr. Whiskers take the Great Northern Railway to Wolf Point, Montana. There she is met by Perliee Meuller and her husband, Karl, as well as Perilee's children, eight year old Chase, six year old Mattie and the baby, Fern. In Wolf Point, Hattie learns that in order to "prove up" on the claim, she must set 480 rods of fence and cultivate 40 acres of land by November 1918. She has no idea how she will accomplish this but Hattie decides that she needs to go to Montana because all her life she has been Hattie Here-and-There. Montana offers her the chance to have a real home of her own.

The Meuller's drive her out to the claim the next day, and Hattie is dismayed by what she sees. The house is a mere shack set in the middle of a vast tract of land and sky. While winter sets in, Hattie gradually adapts to the homesteading life, making good friends with Perilee and Karl, Rooster Jim a crochety, bad-smelling old friend of Chester's, and Leafie Purvis, an older woman who makes a living training horses.

Another person Hattie encounters is the handsome Traft Martin, a young man who runs his family's ranch, The Tipped M, which is the largest ranch in the area and which butts up against the northeast boundary of Hattie's claim. Traft is attracted to Hattie and tries to court her, but she isn't fooled by his good looks. It soon turns out that he has more than just courting on his mind. She also discovers that despite his winsome smile, Traft has a darker side. When Traft and those on the Council of Defense begin singling out Americans of German descent, Hattie refuses to follow along and break off with the Meullers even after she is threatened by Traft. Tragedy follows tragedy but Hattie remains strong, faithful to those who have helped her, and learns about herself and life. Although Hattie works hard on her claim can she succeed in spite of bad weather, little money, and a rancher trying to steal her claim?

Larson has crafted a truly delightful story that engages the reader right from the beginning. Hattie is a strong heroine, determined to make her way in the world, despite terrible odds in a troubling time. She remains true to herself when she stands up, at great personal risk, for those who are being unjustly attacked only because they come from a country that America is at war with. In this way, Hattie demonstrates that she is maturing into a principled adult who knows what she believes in and acts on those beliefs.

Hattie's story is told in a strong first person narrative but also includes the letters she writes to Charlie and Uncle Holt as well as her submissions about homesteading to the Arlington News. This allows us to know something about Charlie and to see how both Charlie and Hattie change over the year. Charlie's view of the war changes in that time. At first he brags about killing Germans, but later on when his best friend is killed, he realizes that killing another person is nothing to brag about. In Hattie's case, she came out to Montana to find a home for herself, but instead found friends who were as good as family. Initially she was only concerned about herself, but as she matures, she begins to develop a concern for those around her.

Many of the characters in the book are memorable, from Rooster Jim with his wild ways, to Perilee and Karl, the stoic couple who help Hattie and who are attacked because Karl is German. Traft Martin, who at first seems like a potential love interest, is revealed as a complex character. Even the animals have interesting personalities as evidenced by the hilarious descriptions of Hattie's cow, Violet, and the three hens she gets from Rooster Jim.

Hattie Big Sky is a wonderful novel about the meaning of friendship and loyalty, finding your place in the world and coming of age.

Larson indicates that many of the events in the novel actually happened. It was her great-grandmother Hattie Inez Brooks Wright who homesteaded in Montana. While doing her research on homesteading during World War I, Larson realized that anti-German sentiment was very common during this time period and therefore, needed to be part of the story.

Book Details:
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
New York: Delacorte Press 2006
289 pp.

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