Retro Review: Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson Reviewed by Donalyn Miller

In spite of reviewer accolades, awards, and friends’ recommendations, I avoided reading Hattie Big Sky for a long time because I predicted (accurately) that I would cry through most of it. Hattie is an endearing character and her hardships touched me, but I connected more deeply to Hattie’s story now than I would have last year or six months ago. Hattie was waiting for me when I needed to find her.

Sixteen year old orphan, Hattie Brooks moves from relative to relative, longing for a home and family of her own. When her departed Uncle Chester, whom she never met, leaves her his homestead and meager belongings, Hattie moves to Montana to prove his land claim. In less than a year, Hattie must cultivate 40 acres and set 480 rods of fence—an impossible task for a girl with little knowledge of farming, few resources, and no help.

Fortunately, she befriends fellow homesteaders, Karl and Perilee Mueller and their children, who adopt Hattie into their lives and teach her how to run her farm. Working to the point of exhaustion every day, Hattie slowly builds a life for herself, realizing, “… I was beginning to see there were bigger things in life than proving up on a claim, I was proving up on my life.”

Set in 1918, Larson describes rising anti-German sentiment among the homesteaders. German immigrants endure bigotry and fear losing their land. Forced to buy Liberty Bonds they cannot afford, farmers who don’t purchase them are labeled traitors. When violence endangers Karl and his family, Hattie refuses to abandon them, risking her own farm in the process. Writing letters to her school friend, Charlie, who is fighting overseas, Hattie wonders whether she is betraying him by standing up for the Muellers.

Hattie shares daily details of her life through letters to her Uncle Holt and articles she writes for newspaper back in Iowa.  Worrying that a drought threatens the success of this year’s wheat crop, Hattie calls Montana “next year country,” expressing the homesteaders’ hope that next year will be better than this one.

With only ten months to prove her claim. Hattie can’t wait for next year. Her bravery and optimism seem reckless at moments, but Hattie only has two choices—give up or get up.

Based on her grandmother’s experiences homesteading in Montana, Kirby Larson weaves historical detail from homesteaders’ journals, rich descriptions of Montana’s prairies, and Hattie’s revealing first person observations into a powerful story about hope and loss. More than a homesteading story, Hattie Big Sky is about trying when failure seems likely, standing up for your own life, and valuing integrity and compassion over personal gain. Whether or not Hattie proves her homestead claim, she discovers her own strengths.

The past few months, I have lived in Next Year Country, too. In May, I left my teaching position in a school district where I taught for ten years. I moved to a neighboring district, changed assignments from middle school to elementary school, and threw my teaching life into my car. Battling my own insecurities about writing, I am careening toward a manuscript deadline at the end of August. I think a lot about failing and dream constantly about living in Next Year Country where the book is finished, I have survived a year in fourth grade, and I magically reach a level of competence that I don’t feel today.

Hattie reminds me that failing doesn’t matter as much as trying. I may never reach Next Year Country, but Now Country looks nice from here. Waiting for next year when things might be easier, I would miss out on a lot this year. I would miss surprising myself. I would miss growing. I would miss falling in love with my new nine-year old miracles.  I can’t wait to introduce them to Hattie.

 

Visit Kirby Larson’s blog for news about her upcoming sequel to Hattie Big Sky and her tips on writing.

 

Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.