Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Hattie Big Sky As Authentic As Montana Itself

(Image from Amazon)

Fans of historical fiction (especially books like Nancy Turner's These Is My Words) will find Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson as warm and familiar as an old quilt. It's certainly not the first book to feature a strong woman pioneer striking out west on her own. Still, Larson brings a fresh, young voice as well as a vibrant setting to the table. The result? Hattie Big Sky offers the same comforting patchwork, but with a unique pattern and some bright, new colors. The combination wins a Blue Ribbon in my book.

The year is 1917. Headlines across the world scream news of war. On the homefront, women and girls are busily knitting socks for the soldiers, pouring out their hearts in letters and praying for the boys' swift return. For 16-year-old Hattie Inez Brooks, the war is just another bump in her hardscrabble life. After her parents' death, Hattie bounced around from relative to relative, finally landing in Arlington, Iowa, where she now lives under the ever-critical eye of Aunt Ivy. For "Hattie Here-and-There" home is as elusive as faraway France, where the war has dumped her good friend Charlie (he's only a friend, as everyone knows he's sweet on Mildred Powell). She writes him letters, but it's just not the same as practicing pitching and collecting wishing stones with her buddy.

So, when Hattie receives a posthumous letter from her mysterious Uncle Chester, leaving her "my claim and the house and its contents, as well as one steadfast horse named Plug and a contemptible cow known as Violet" (9), she jumps at the chance to start a new life. Despite a lack of "agricultural expertise," (10) Hattie boards a train headed for Wolf Point, Montana. From the grimy windows of the train, she can see only an "endless stretch of snow" (14). Her first steps on the frozen ground are not encouraging; when she sees Uncle Chester's house, she realizes "House was a Charlie term - kind and generous" (37). The structure is scarcely more than a slapped-together shed. With characteristic determination, Hattie sets about making the place her own. According to homesteading law, she has 10 months to "prove up" her claim by fencing her land and cultivating crops. It's a daunting task, but she means to do it.

Salvation comes in the form of Hattie's neighbors. She quickly becomes attached to the Muellers, a German-American family that helps her through all manner of difficulties. She also has the olfactory-challenged Rooster Jim, prairie nurse Leafie, and the disarmingly handsome Traft Martin, whose attentions may be more curse than blessing. With neighborly support and hard work, Hattie wrestles obstinate farm animals; fences her property; learns to cook; and defends her claim with pride. Hard times do not pass her by, of course. Her friendship with the Muellers brings her heat from the Dawson County Council of Defense, a group of ranchers bent on persecuting anyone of German descent. As if that wasn't bad enough, a bout of Spanish influenza steals lives, and the weather brings constant worries. If Hattie's crops don't flourish, she will lose her claim. As she battles the land to prove her claim, she must also fight to save the only real home she has ever known.

Montana's omnipresence in the novel makes it as much a character as anyone else, but Hattie Big Sky really isn't about the land. Sure, it's an adventure story, with enough coyote encounters, wild horse stampedes, tough cowboys and dangerous rabble rousers to keep the reader turning pages, but at its heart it's a story about home, family and identity. The most important transformation in the book has nothing to do with the landscape, and everything to do with Hattie herself. As she progresses from "Hattie-Here-and-There" to "Wolf Point Hattie Homesteader" to "Hattie Big Sky," she learns the truths that will make her whole. Whether or not she proves up her claim (and I'm not going to give you any hint as to how the story ends), Hattie discovers what's really important: home, family and "proving up on my life" (146).

There were a few things I wanted out of this book that it didn't deliver (namely, more of a backstory for Hattie and answers to Uncle Chester's mysteries), but overall, it was well-written and engaging. Although the period details seemed contrived at times, I enjoyed reading about Montana in the early 1900s. Perhaps because my father spent his boyhood in Montana (only 20-some years after this novel is set), and I grew up hearing stories about his family's experience there, this story really rang true to me. The plot isn't all that unique, but Hattie Big Sky is a book that's as authentic as the land it celebrates, as vibrant as its one constant - that big old Montana sky.

Grade: A

6 comments:

  1. Great review! I loved this book. I was really rushed when I tried writing my review and as soon as I posted it I wished I'd taken some more time writing it. I'm glad you liked this book. I've seen some negative reviews, but I really liked this book.

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  2. I really enjoyed this book. I kept picturing my grandmother in eastern Idaho, newly married to her WWI vet, and living a similar lifestyle as they began working "the ranch." I'm glad that you have been able to see the results of their labors, too.

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  3. I really enjoyed this book! I read on somebody's blog and I can't remember who that it reminded them of the movie Sweet Land (mainly because of the German and the war thing) hich I actually had watched before I read the book. If you haven't seen it, look it up.

    Kirby Larson was recently in Orem, close to where I live and I was disappointed that I was not able to get a babysitter to go down and see her. I would have enjoyed it.

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  4. I haven't read this one, but I did purchase it for my library. It looks like everything I usually like in a book -- strong female character, vivid setting, historical background.

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  5. This is one I haven't heard of, but it's funny you mentioned These Is My Words. I read that one a few years ago, and my husband made fun of it every time he saw the book! It really started to irk me, because if I remember correctly, the narrator didn't even have such awful grammar!

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