Hattie Big Sky

Give me a book with a picture of a girl and land on the cover, and I’m there. As I picked up Hattie Big Sky, I asked myself: “Are prairie and homesteading novels to you what romance novels are to some women? Are these books you love really all the same book over and over again? Are you riding your covered wagon around in a circle? Are you just a sucker for this formula?

Because, to an extent, there is a formula for these girl-and-the-land books I love:

  • A girl who is lacking something (family, confidence, happiness) is suddenly plopped out west, somewhere on the frontier.
  • She is forced to deal with her feelings about her situation. For example, she may like the quiet or the pretty scenery, but she may hate the bugs or the mud or the smelly neighbors.
  • She meets colorful characters, both helpful and antagonistic.
  • She grapples with her insecurity/immaturity/anger/sadness/frustration (pick as many as apply).
  • She finally gets what she needs from the land and from the experience of being there, whether she stays or moves on.

All of those things happen in Hattie Big Sky, which takes place in Montana in 1917 and 1918. But many things happen that are not part of the formula, and I think that is true with all of my beloved girl-and-the-land books, of which this is now one.

Hattie writes letters to a friend who is fighting in World War I, so the novel touches on the experiences of a soldier in Europe. It also deals with anti-German sentiments in the United States during the war. While this was not something I expected, I was glad to find it addressed, and Hattie’s reactions to the prejudices of her neighbors are some of the novel’s best indicators of her character.

Author Kirby Larson, who was inspired to write the book by the adventures of her real-life relative, fits an amazing number of events into the story, but they don’t feel crowded. Hattie goes to a dance, fights a fire, helps deliver a baby, diverts a stampeding stallion, chases away a wolf, fences her land, bonds with a little boy over books, and even learns to quilt!

Her friends, the Mueller family, are lovely and memorable characters, as are the old-timers who share their wisdom about homesteading. Because of the rich characters, strong sense of time and place, and theme of growth and discovery, Hattie Big Sky would make an excellent film, as have so many other girl-and-the-land books.

Last but not least, Kirby Larson can really write. When she describes Hattie’s feelings about the questionable young rancher, Traft Martin, she communicates a rush of complex feelings without resorting to cheap language or overused metaphors. For example, “. . . he took my hand . . . as gently as if he was holding his own mother’s very best china teacup.” When you read the episode, you feel just what she feels, and how the feeling peaks and falls.

Oh, those frontier girls have the life. They may have to work all day in the mud and the heat and the manure, but they get to experience self-actualization, too.

Does that happen in romance novels? I wouldn’t know; I’ve never read one.


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    […] Gaissert presents Hattie Big Sky posted at The Expanding Life, saying, “I’m an adult who loves well-written […]

  2. 2

    kristiee. said,

    i understand exactly how you feel to girl-and-prairie book. i fell in love with these kinds of books too. and it broke my heart to return this book to my school library. LOL. not in hyperbole broke-my-heart but as in seriously. i made such a big fuss about having to buy this book.
    i read laura ingalls. any other book suggestions?

    • 3

      sgaissert said,

      It’s nice to meet another “prairie girl.” I have some suggestions. They are all non-fiction, written by REAL prairie women.: No Time on My Hands by Grace Snyder; Days on the Road: The Diary of Sarah Raymond Herndon; Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart; Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel; and (it’s pretty sad) The Children’s Blizzard by David laskin. All of thee are fascinating and show the bravery and strength of women. I highly recommend any of them. If you read one, please let me know what you thought!

      Best wishes, Susan

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