Title: Hattie Big Sky
Author: Kirby Larson
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Length: 289 pages
Synopsis: Hattie Inez Brooks, the sixteen year old protagonist of Hattie Big Sky, is an orphan who has never had a permanent family. She has always been “Hattie Here-and-There,” a dependent on others’ charity. However, her fate changes one day when she receives notice that her Uncle Chester, at his death, left her his claim out in Montana. Hattie leaves her home in Iowa for Montana, where she meets with all sorts of challenges. She has less than a year to “prove up” her claim, which means that she has less than a year to fence it and cultivate forty acres of it. Hattie takes the whole business in stride, doing battle with the elements, animals (both wild and domestic), herself, and even one of her neighbors. The story is laced with references to World War I and the anti-German sentiment that was rampant in the U.S. at the time. Full of both triumph and heartache, this book is well deserving of its Newbery Honor distinction.
My Thoughts: I love this book! I’ve always enjoyed a pioneer story, so I was already set up to enjoy this novel, even before I began reading it. However, Hattie’s voice completely drew me in. Each chapter begins with a letter to her sweetheart, Charlie, who is fighting the Huns in Europe, or a letter to her Uncle Holt back in Iowa. Later in the story, we get to read Hattie’s own “Honyocker Homilies,” articles describing her homesteading adventures she sends back to Iowa to be published in the local paper there. Larson definitely has a way with words. The reader gets to know Hattie and her colorful friends and neighbors through her excellent description. This is Hattie on her own lack of family:
I’d been orphaned before I lost my baby teeth. Pa’s story was a familiar one to any miner’s family: the coal dust ate up his lungs. I was just two or three when he passed. Aunt Seah took me in when I was five, after Mama died. The doctor said it was pneumonia that took her, but Aunt Seah claimed it was a broken heart. The kindest of my many stops along the way, she gave me the gift of certainty that my parents had loved one another. After Aunt Seah got too old to keep me, I was shuffled from one relative to another–some of them pretty far down on the shirttail. I’d stay to help out with this person or that until I’d run out of folks who needed help and didn’t mind an extra mouth to feed to get it.
This is Hattie’s appraisal of her new home on the prairie:
I looked in disbelief. House was a Charlie term–kind and generous. Aunt Ivy’s chickens had better accommodations. The structure wasn’t much bigger than Uncle Holt’s tool shed and was put together with about as much care. Gaps in siding revealed black tar paper, like decay between haphazard teeth. Two wood-block steps led up to a rough-hewn door. A small window–the only window, I was to find out–left of the door stared dully at me. My own gaze in return was no doubt equally as dull.
Although Hattie finds her place and a family on the prairie, life is not easy for her at all. In fact, she realizes that even after all her hard work, she will likely still lose her claim:
I sat, quiet and alone. No tears. No shaking my fist at God. Nothing but a heavy stone in my chest that used to be a heart filled with dreams and possibilities. There should be fireworks, at least, when a dream dies. But no, this one had blown apart as easily as a dandelion gone to seed.
This is a beautifully written story that is certainly tinged with tragedy, but in the end, Hattie does indeed find her place under the Big Sky. In addition to being a Newbery Honor book for 2007, this novel is also based on the author’s own family history; her great grandmother was the original Hattie who struck out on her own on the Montana prairie as a sixteen year old. Knowing that such stories actually took place made this novel all the richer for me. I am anxious now to read the Newbery winner for 2007 since it beat Hattie Big Sky. It must be a truly outstanding book!