Friday, January 14, 2011

2007 Honor: Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

I’ve been wanting to read Hattie Big Sky for a long time.  I mean, just look at the cover!  It’s gorgeous!  Doesn’t it look like this girl is about to have all kinds of adventure?  In Technicolor?  Reading Sarah Plain and Tall seemed like the perfect opportunity to read this book and learn a bit more about homesteading.  However, it wasn’t what I expected.  I didn’t love it like I thought I would.  But it has a shiny sticker on it, so that means it’s reallyreally good, right?  Yes, and we’ll get to that in a moment; today I'll start a discussion that I know I’ll be continuing throughout this year.

Service flags are frequently seen in Hattie Big Sky.
Hattie Big Sky is the story of 16-year-old Hattie Inez Brooks, an orphan who is hot-potatoed among her relatives until she learns that her uncle has died and left her his Montana homestead claim.  She travels out west to prove up on the claim and finally have a home of her own.  Her 1918 is spent building a fence and cultivating her property; making friends, who become closer than her real family; writing to the boy she secretly crushes on as he fights in France; penning articles on her homesteading life for the paper of her most recent “hometown”; and trying to protect her property and friends from the local wildlife, the Spanish flu, and the truly terrifying Dawson County Council of Defense.  This last is a group of local men who attempt to root out disloyalty and Germans wherever they can—often focusing on Hattie’s incredibly kind German-born neighbor, Karl Mueller, and his American wife and step-children.

Hattie's train ride to Montana took several days.
This book is a richly detailed portrayal of both homesteading life and America during WWI.  I don’t know much about either, but judging from the Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book and the Author’s Note and Further Reading at the end, Kirby Larson performed lots and lots and lots and lots of research, which makes me feel that I can really trust what she’s written.  The title character is based on Larson’s own great-grandmother, the real Hattie Inez Brooks, which only reinforces my trust in her research.  I occasionally wondered how much of the book was fiction and how much was fact, but that didn't really distract me from enjoying the story.

Hattie uses a stone boat to move supplies around her farm.
 The atmosphere of fear that Larson writes about is another terrific element of this book.  Everyone is afraid for their loved ones fighting overseas, and for the boys who may be drafted next.  Many people are also afraid of spies and disloyalty in their own hometown, and still others are afraid of what the disloyalty-fearing will do next.  The men on the Council of Defense intimidate and bully everyone around them, going so far as to beat a man in the middle of town and to commit arson.  The palpable fear throughout this book is expertly portrayed, and reminiscent of many other times in human history—including the present—when fearful people have gained too much power over others.  Larson writes in her Author’s Note that she began the book in 2003, and found parallels in her research to current events like the renaming of French fries as Freedom fries.  Reading the book in 2010, I couldn't help but see the Tea Party in the Council of Defense.  

Hattie exchanges letters with Charlie, stationed in France.
Hattie's reaction to the fear surrounding her on all sides is very real, and certainly admirable.  She behaves how I would want to behave in her situation.  Identifying with Hattie, especially through her fear, is easy to do in this book.  She's a very likeable and interesting character.  However, identifying with her makes the ending of the book difficult:  Hattie does not get the ending I wanted for her.  While this initially pissed me off, it is a true ending.  It’s good to see a character learn to solve problems and carry on, to get through the really hard times, and to create new dreams for herself.  I think we need to read about such characters once in a while—at least, I do.

Hattie's shocks of wheat must stand in the fields to dry.
I said at the beginning of the post that I did not love this book.  I think it is a very, very good book, but it's not quite the book for me.  For me, many of the characters were a little too black-and-white for my liking.  I found it a little annoying how some people were so thoroughly good and others so thoroughly bad.  I also struggled a little with the plot.  It felt, at times, more biographical than fictional, with a bit of randomness to the events in Hattie’s homesteading year.  This was most evident near the end of the story, when the Spanish flu crops up almost out of nowhere, swells to huge proportions, and has terrible consequences. I know that in real life, pandemics are like that:  they appear in a community and then spread and destroy rapidly.  But in the case of Hattie Big Sky, the flu just seemed to grab the reins of the story and drive off with it.   

Hattie's young neighbor, Chase, is full of farming advice.
To be honest, this isn’t really a plot-driven story; it’s character-driven, a study of how Hattie and her neighbors grow and change and relate to each other and to the land they’re trying to live on.  And judging by how I felt about this book, I think I enjoy plot-driven stories more.  Early in the book, Hattie learns the criteria for proving up on her claim:  set 480 rods of fence, cultivate 1/8th of her claim (40 acres), pay a $37.75 fee for the paperwork on the claim, and do all of this in about ten months.  I was eager to see these criteria driving the story, to see Hattie struggling each day to build her fence and plant her crops, to see what different troubles would arise and how she would outsmart them to keep building her homestead.  But while we do learn a little bit about how she builds a fence and plants and harvests crops, the bulk of the narrative is filled with Hattie’s interactions with the people around her, and I was a bit frustrated.

Hattie and Perilee bond while they quilt.
It’s tempting, when we don’t like a book, to decide that it’s just a bad book.  This is easy to do because there are bad books in the world.  “There are very poor writers who somehow get published,” writes Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale on her blog.  “But for the most part,” she reminds us, “every novel in your bookstore was written by a passionate person who wrote the very best book she could.”  This is from Hale’s August 31, 2008 post, one of many in a topic to which she often returns: How to Be a Reader.  This particular post really challenged the way I think about the books I read.  I’m a lifelong reader and I know what’s good, I tell myself.  So if I don’t like a book, that means it’s not good, right?  Not necessarily.  Hale writes that an author only does 50% of the storytelling, and the reader does the other 50%.  “There's no way I can control the story you tell yourself from my book,” she says.  “Your own experiences, preferences, prejudices, mood at the moment, current events in your life, needs and wants influence how you read my every word.”  As I wrote above, I wanted a story a bit different from the one Hattie Big Sky told.  I didn’t realize this right away, though.  When I finished the book, I could only focus on the things I didn’t like about it, and for about one minute I considered it a bad book. 

But it has shiny medal on the cover!  That means a team of librarians discussed it for many, many hours over the course of days, and decided that it was one of the most distinguished contributions to literature for children in 2007.  So what went wrong for me?  Hale writes, “the author didn't fail you--the author just wrote a story that didn't click with your internal reader at this point in your life.”  I had to investigate why I didn’t like certain elements of this book, and what I had wanted instead (hence my mention above of my preference for a plot-driven story and a happy ending).  I also had to focus on the parts of the book that are done well—and these parts are in the majority!—to make sure that I wasn’t being overly critical of the book.  I must admit, I was angry as I first read Hale’s post so long ago.  I think I can tell when a book is bad! I argued in my head.  I’m an English Major and I’m real smart!  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she’s right.  I can’t imagine that anyone would set out to write a bad book.  It is highly likely that each writer is trying to write the best book he or she can.  When a book doesn’t fit my preferences, that doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Yes, this makes evaluating whether a book really is good or bad much harder, but it also means that I’m labeling far fewer books as bad, and that’s a good thing.  This is why, at the end of my reviews so far, I’ve been suggesting the types of people that might like each book.  Not everyone will like every book, so this is my attempt to guide people to the ones they will probably like…and to help them get something good out of the ones they may not like.

Who should give this book a try?
The end of World War I is cause for celebration.
People who like history.  People who like historical fiction.  People who are interested in learning more about American life during World War I.  People who want to learn more about homesteading.  People who like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or other pioneer stories.  Kids who are studying WWI in Social Studies.  Kids who are studying any other war, including our current ones.  People who like books with farming communities like Anne of Green Gables.  People who will not be too upset by an early-1900s view of animals, both domestic and wild, and how they should be treated on a farm (some scenes may be hard for my vegetarian and vegan pals to read; even I was a little bothered).  People who like resourceful, creative, quick-thinking characters who get themselves out of scrapes.  People who like characters who are brave in spite of their fears.  People who like oddball characters who completely disregard societal norms (you’ll love Rooster Jim and Leafie Purvis!).  People who like cats—Hattie has an interesting one.  People who like a smidge of romance.  People who like hard work (please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks building a fence or planting crops sounds like fun!).  People who like the idea of finding a new dream for yourself, no matter if that happens in the beginning of the book, the middle, the end, or all three.

Important Thing:  The photographs used in this post, as in the Sarah, Plain and Tall review, come from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalogue, and Shorpy, a website for historic photos.  (Click on the caption to go to the photo's location online.)  Searching through all the history on these sites is a really fascinating way to spend an afternoon--wish these had been around when I was still in school doing projects for history class!


  1. Wow, what a fantastic post! Though I've never read this book, I feel like I can now recommend it confidently to some of my students, with the help of your who will like this book section. I love reading about other people's journeys as readers, and I'm glad you shared yours with this book. I also love Shannon Hale's reading posts and would have chosen the same parts to quote. Thanks for stopping by my blog - I feel like I've found a new friend. :)

  2. I feel the same way! I'm glad this post is helpful. I've worked in a library and a bookstore and there's no way to read every single book there, so it really helps to know a little bit about who might like each book. That's also why I love to follow blogs with book reviews--and I'm definitely going to be following yours!

    Also--I'm glad you like Shannon Hale's reading posts too! They really changed the way I think about books and writers, and I just want to spread that around. :)

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog! I love that you're reading all of the Newbery medal winners. I'm working on just the last ten or so myself, since I missed a lot of them.

    And don't be too jealous of my slow library day. It was snowing that day, for one thing, and for another, my library is opening a new building next week, and we expect to be super busy from here on out.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say how impressed I am with this detailed post! I've never read Hattie Big Sky, but you have made me want to give it a try. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for your future posts. :-)

  4. Hee hee, thanks for visiting my blog back! I've also missed a lot of the last 10+, and I'm just itching to read them. I'm trying to space them out, though, so I don't end up with all the really old ones at once.

    A new library building sounds awesome! Congrats, and good luck. That may have been why mine was so busy, it was in a fairly new building.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post! I'm enjoying your reviews too!

  5. An interesting and detailed review! I have to admit I am not one for pioneer stories. Maybe all the ones I have read just seem either depressing or goodie-goodie. Like you mentioned, I also prefer plot- to character-driven stories.

  6. I had much the same reaction--I kept expecting to connect with the story more than I was.

    (I love all the pictures you put in!)

  7. What I like most about this post was the detailing of your personal struggles to become an objective reader. The fact that you learned something, not necessarily from the story of this book, but from the actual act of reading it is a fascinating concept for me. It proves that you're an insightful individual open to life lessons and new ways of thinking. But I already knew that. I'm enjoying your blog, Melanie. Just thought I'd share that.


  8. Storied Cities--thanks! Maybe it's just pioneer character-driven stories that we both have trouble with. I just read a couple of historical fictions--hi fi's, if you will ;)--that were character-driven, and enjoyed them much more. Hmm...

    Charlotte--I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt this way about the book. Aren't the pics cool? I've become hooked on historical photos and I have a feeling a lot of my posts will feature them.

    Kenney--THANKS! I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. It has been very interesting to think about books and reading more objectively. Like I said in this post, I think I'm going to be returning to these ideas with other books. I'm still not sure what my overall philosophy is toward "good" books and "bad" books, and toward positive reviews and critical ones, and toward how objective we should be when reading and reviewing a book. It seems like every blog post I read or every person I talk to about it makes a really good point, but they conflict with other really good points. Makes my head spin.

  9. OMG this was sooooooooo helpful! The pictures are GREAT!

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