Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Reading Through History: Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (2006)

Sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks has always thought of herself as Hattie-Here-and-There. Orphaned at a young age, she has been bounced from relative to relative, never feeling like she has a place to belong. When she learns that she has inherited a claim to a Montana homestead from a recently deceased uncle, she doesn't think twice before leaving her current home in Iowa and setting out to "prove up" the claim  - and prove to herself that she can make it on her own. 

Hattie Big Sky (recipient of a 2007 Newbery Honor) is set in 1918, so in addition to information about homesteading, and the difficulty of raising a successful crop on the Montana prairie, it also focuses quite a bit on the impact of World War I, especially on those of German descent. Though the details of life on the homestead are wonderful - and at times, because of Hattie's inexperience, very funny - it is Hattie's firsthand experiences with prejudice against those who are seen as disloyal to the United States that make this book such a wonderful read. Hattie herself is a wonderful character, but she is also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Friends - such as Perilee Mueller, her German husband, Karl and their sweet children; Leafie, the local nurse; and Charlie, a soldier to whom Hattie writes frequent letters - and enemies, like the judgmental and opportunistic Traft Martin - all come vividly to life thanks to the author's carefully selected and well-placed details. Hattie's hopes easily become the reader's hopes and her tragedies and losses hit the reader extra hard because of how easy it is  to love and root for Hattie. 

This book is educational not just because of its treatment of historical material, but because of its messages about hard work, friendship, faith, bravery and self-worth. Hattie is a worthy role model, and her experience is a great lesson in how to meet hardships head-on and to always remain hopeful and look toward the good.  This book is a wonderful read-alike for the last two titles of the Betsy-Tacy series - Betsy and the Great World, because of its portrayal of the start of World War I, and Betsy's Wedding, because of Betsy's own struggles learning to cook and keep house. Fortunately, the author has also written a sequel to Hattie Big Sky: 2013's Hattie Ever After

A final note: I would classify Hattie Big Sky as young adult, because it is about a teenage girl setting off on her own and experiencing life in the real world for the first time, but it is appropriate for a wide range of readers, including middle schoolers and adult readers. Women young and old will relate to Hattie and become completely engrossed in both the good and the bad of her homesteading experience. 

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