Review of the Day: Hattie Big Sky
Imagine that you’re a children’s librarian surrounded by piles and piles of books for kids, all published in the year 2006. How do you choose amongst your various titles to figure out what to read next? Do you pluck up the books with the shiny foil covers and catchy titles? Do you zero in on the 400+ page titles that all have “Book One” or “First In the [blank] Trilogy” somewhere on the cover? Do you stick only to those books written by authors you’ve loved time and again? For me, the decision to sit down and read, “Hattie Big Sky” was helped immensely by this first sentence on the authorial bookflap: “Thanks to her eighth-grade teacher, Kirby Larson maintained a healthy lack of interest in history until she heard a snippet of a story about her great-grandmother’s homesteading by herself in eastern Montana.” And we’re off! As someone who also couldn’t have cared less about history and historical fiction for most of her natural born life, Larson’s declaration right from the start that history was never her bag came as quite the wake-up call. Plus the result of her newfound interest in history is this remarkable little book recounting a single girl’s wish to go out into the world and prove herself to others. You couldn’t have it any other way.
It’s December in 1917. American involvement in WWI is in full swing and Hattie Brooks has just found herself the proud new owner 320 acres of land on a homestead claim in Montana. Left to her by a hitherto unknown uncle, this unexpected inheritance is just the thing Hattie’s been looking for. Orphaned when she was young, the girl has bounced from family member to family member so often that she feels a little like Hattie Here-and-There. Now, with a big beautiful piece of land entirely her own she feels like she’s Hattie Big Sky. Of course there’s fence to put down, wheat and flax to plant and harvest, neighbors to befriend (or avoid), and more work than this sixteen-year-old young lady could ever have dreamed of. Still, who would have thought that here on the prairie you could find just as much adventure, true friendship, and heartbreak as anywhere else on the globe.
Part of what Lason does so well in this book is create truly lovable and believable characters. Hattie befriends a whole host of different people on her claim and each one feels very real and, with the exception of the villains (and there are some) very lovable. The woman Hattie grows closest to, Perilee Mueller, talks like someone your mother might be best friends with. She’s down home and comfy and says things like, “Sugar, you are a stitch.” May we all find our own Perilees somewhere. And the nice thing about the book’s bad guy, the handsome Traft Martin, is that he’s not 100% out-and-out evil. Sure, he’s willing to pick on Perilee’s German-born husband because of the war, but he has his own personala demons and it’s great that the author lets you see that. No moustache twirling found here.
I also liked that I couldn’t necessarily predict where the book was going. Every once in a while I’d catch myself saying something like, “Okay. Now we’re going to get the scene where there’s a mob” or “Now we’re going to come to the scene where someone gets shot or arrested” and it just wouldn’t happen. Larson refuses to allow you to predict the novel’s flow, and I respect that. I do wish that we had learned a little more about Hattie’s supposedly scoundrelish Uncle Chester. He appears in this book like a kind of fairy godmother (or deus ex machina), and we never learn much about him. He’s so mysterious he almost feels like a plot convenience. It would have been cool to flesh him out a little bit, or maybe show that he got the claim through questionable methods. Then again, maybe that would have taken the focus off of the story at large, so who knows? It’s distinctly hard to say.
So who would you say that this book is for? On the bookflap, Delacorte has come to the conclusion that the perfect reading age for “Hatte Big Sky” is “12 and up”. Yet I can see historical fiction loving ten and eleven-year-olds also truly getting into Hattie’s tale. I mean, isn’t this one of the coolest ideas? You strike out into the great big world, just you and your cat, to make a living. You’re young and you tend your homestead and deal with nature one-on-one. And you have your own land! And cow. And horse. And chickens. For some of us, this is the ultimate fantasy of living in a harsh world. For others, this is the ultimate fantasy of snuggling down to a cup of hot cocoa as you read about someone living in a harsh world. It’s win win. Some teens will definitely adore it, but there’s nothing here inappropriate for the younger set as well. Just make certain they don’t mind reading about long passages that describe what it really means to work a homestead. Add in the additional recipes and a Further Reading section of books and websites and you've a better researched book than a lot of the non-fiction coming out today.
There are historical fiction lovers out there, and they’ll come in droves to appreciate “Hattie Big Sky”, should they happen to hear about it. So tell them. In a way, it’s kind of in the same vein as “Julie of the Wolves” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” in that it’s a single girl making her way in a harsh world and growing to love the struggle. A fine and truly enjoyable read.
Notes On the Cover: Oh, Delacorte, you sly honey, is this for me? This fantastic cover, I mean. Look at this puppy. See, now all you other publishers need to gather around and respect how well photographer Jonathan Barkat and jacket designer Vikki Sheatsley did with "Hattie Big Sky". Note that there isn’t ANY sepia to be seen. And while they seem to have adhered to the odd never-show-the-title-character’s-face rule so popular these days, at least this isn’t another one of those disembodied females (i.e. random legs or torsos tossed onto a cover for kicks). Whoever they hired to look like Hattie is perfect too. Here she stands, looking at land and a wide expanse of sky (though not too much) with an interesting combination of calm and watchfulness. And with all that sky and land, it’s easy to see where to put the medals this book will accrue. Nicely done, though Mr. Barkat, I think you need to work on your website a bit. I can’t seem to get the images from your other books to come up on Firefox. Just a note.