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hattie big sky

5 april 2014

The narrator/protagonist of Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky is sixteen years old, an astonishing development for a 21st-century children's novel, let alone one that won a Newbery Honor.

Hattie wouldn't make sense as an 11-year-old going on 12, because Larson's plot takes her alone (except for her cat Mr. Whiskers) from Iowa to the distant Montana frontier, by train, in the year 1917. Hattie, long orphaned, is a "honyocker": she has inherited a claim to a half-section of prairie farmland from a ne'er-do-well uncle she never knew she had.

If that premise doesn't make sense to you either, Larson assures the reader that it's actually based on a true story, the life of her own great-grandmother. And truth (as is only right) was in this case less plausible than fiction. "My great-grandmother proved up on her claim, but I couldn't let 'my' Hattie keep hers. Most honyockers went bust" (Author's Note). Larson lets the course take a route more typical of history: some who staked claims were lone girls, but most failed at the attempt.

Hattie Big Sky has a cast of characters that's slightly too big for its compass. It also gets too busy in its details, and thematically. Hattie is busy trying to learn farming and most other aspects of domestic life. She also writes about them for an Iowa newspaper (the story is about the Bildung of a writer as much as anything else; and naturally both Hattie and every child she meets are avid readers). There's a romance plot (will Hattie fall for her new neighbor, the mercurial rancher, or stay true to her hometown flame, who has gone off to the war in France)? And then there's the war-in-France theme, with the homeland-security subplot that features distrust of German immigrants, and the consequent layering over of allegories to Iraq-War America. Other episodes involve learning about animals and machines, midwifing babies and losing them to the Spanish influenza – and I'm sure I'm forgetting some – all wrapped around a rather Victorian plot involving property, inheritance, and a constant calculation of how far the protagonist is in debt.

For all its busy-ness, there are things to like about Hattie Big Sky. The voice of the narrator is unsentimental. She's a tough heroine, more interested in testing her limits than in security. It's a story about the wonders of surviving in a hostile environment – not rapturous about nature, but with an earned sense of respect for the land. It's got quilting. It's got recipes. It's a book to live in for a while.

Larson, Kirby. Hattie Big Sky. New York: Delacorte [Random House], 2006. Electronic Edition. PZ7 .L32394Hat