Children's Literacy Round-Up: November 8
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Hattie Big Sky: Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson is a historical novel set on an a Montana homestead during World War I. It's about struggle and survival and finding your place in the world. It's a bit like Little House on the Prairie, but for young adults. 16-year old Hattie Brooks has been kicked around between relatives since she was orphaned at age five. She is hopeful when she learns that her reclusive Uncle Chester has left her his homestead claim, though the prospect of homesteading is daunting. She has 10 months to set 480 rods of fence (a lot!), and plant 40 acres with crops. If she can do this, and pay the $37.75 fee, the 320 acre homestead will be hers to keep. Unphased by the challenges that face her (or mostly unphased), Hattie hops on a train, and begins her new life.

Homesteading in eastern Montana is hard, thankless work. Life-threatening cold characterizes the winter; energy-sapping heat the summer. Various pests, as well as natural disasters, can destroy crops. Money is very tight. Chester has left Hattie with a ramshackle cabin, a truck full of memories, plenty of books, and, alas, a not-inconsiderable debt. Fortunately, he has also left her with several helpful neighbors.

Hattie soon becomes friends with Karl and Perilee Mueller and their children (well, technically Perilee's children from her first marriage). Eight-year-old Chase is bright beyond his years, loves books, and is a born inventor. He teaches Hattie about homesteading. Six-year-old Mattie never stops talking, and cheers up everyone around her. Perilee is the very epitome of neighborliness and kindness (and quite a cook to boot). Karl, though quieter, reveals himself to be rock-solid, the kind of man who will spend the entire night outdoors in a blizzard looking for a pair of lost children.

All is not easy for the Mueller family (or for anyone in Vida, Montana, if the truth be known), however. Karl is a German immigrant, not a safe thing to be in the US during World War I. The members of the local "Council for Defense", headed up by the charming and greedy Traft Martin, persecute those of German background. They also persecute anyone who stands up to them, and anyone who expresses support of "non-Patriotic" views. For instance, a local minister is fired for preaching to his immigrant congregation in their own language, instead of in English. There is a climate of fear and suspicion, in which people are afraid to speak their own minds. Hattie has to balance loyalty for the neighbors who have become her family against her own self-preservation.

I found this window into xenophobic wartime suspicions quite relevant to today's war in Iraq (as Kirby Larson notes herself in an afterword). It's amazing how far we have, and yet have not, come in 90 years. Much of the historical detail in Hattie Big Sky is based on actual events (Hattie is modeled after the story of the author's great-grandmother, who did homestead by herself in eastern Montana). The details of homestead life are believable and interesting, without being overwhelming. The background of the war, and associated privations and pressures, adds tension and interest.

Oh, the wonderful things in this book. The more I think about it, the more there is to think about. Hattie's grit and determination. The difficulties of homesteading life. Hattie's lessons about loyalty, friendship and, alas, tragedy. The book, although written in the first person, uses a couple of devices to allow us to see even more into Hattie's evolving thoughts and personality. First, she writes regular letters to her Uncle Holt, and her friend Charlie, a soldier stationed in France. Also, Hattie writes monthly pieces for a newspaper about homestead life. They are funny and poetic and heart-breaking.

Hattie Big Sky kept me up late reading two nights in a row, wanting to know what would happen next. It's a historical novel, not a mystery, but there is plenty of suspense. Will Charlie survive the war? Will Perilee's new baby be born safely? Will Karl suffer at the hands of the defense council? Will Hattie prove up her claim? Will anyone we care about die in the Spanish flu epidemic? But there are moments of joy and friendship and small town entertainment, too.

The characterization is subtle but confident. The only person I couldn't quite pin down was Traft Martin, who helps Hattie from time to time, but causes trouble for her, too. This isn't a criticism. It's a well-drawn and complex character who I puzzle over, uncertain of his motives. As for Hattie, she's simply a triumph. Through the story, we witness her evolution from the child who calls herself "Hattie Here-and-There" to the woman who does what needs to be done, and learns the true meaning of home.

Here's my favorite scene. Hattie and her neighbor, a tough by kind older woman named Leafie, are visiting a woman named Mabel, who has six children. Mabel's husband has refused to register for the draft, because he doesn't want to leave his large family, and he's just been dragged off by the authorities. Leafie offers up Hattie's services to accompany Mabel to visit the reverend, and ask for help.

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I hardly knew Mabel. And I sure didn't want to get mixed up in this. If Elmer was supposed to register —

Mabel wiped her hands on her apron. "There's no need to trouble, Miss Brooks."

Leafie looked at me. Hard.

I took in Mabel, how thin she was. Skin the color of wet muslin. "It's be no trouble.""

Hattie does the right thing, even when it's inconvenient. She has to be prodded, in this case, by a woman with more life experience, but she comes through. There are hardly even any words in this passage. But it's going to stick on my mind for a long time.

If you're interested in what it was like back home during World War I, or what it was like for homesteaders in the west, or you just generally like survival stories, you should absolutely pick up Hattie Big Sky. And if none of those things are true for you, you should pick it up anyway. You won't be disappointed.

Book: Hattie Big Sky
Author: Kirby Larson
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 304
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: A Fuse #8 Production

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.