Ever since I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (I know some of you out there are rolling your eyes: “Here she goes again with that WOBP book.”) in 6th grade, I have been searching for other books that reminds me, in one way or the other, of the mother book. Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson reminds me of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, yet they are completely different.
Hattie Big Sky tells the story of Hattie Inez Brooks, a sixteen year old orphan who finds herself suddenly in possession of a 320 acre Montana claim. The year is 1918. America is in the thick of WWI. Determined to carve out a place for herself in the world, Hattie hastens to the Montana prairies to make good on her claim. The wilderness is harsh, the climate unforgiving, but Hattie is resourceful. In her struggles to cultivate and fence in acres of untamed wilderness, she befriends her German-American neighbors, the Muellers, who are by and large, the social outcasts of Vida, Montana.
One of the things I look for in a book is a strong, independent, resourceful heroine and Hattie Inez Brooks has all these traits in spades. I also find myself drawn to YA historical novels in which the female protagonist is plucked from her comfortable lifestyle and plunked in a stark, unforgiving environment. Initially, said heroine may feel like a fish out of water, but eventually, she’s forced to roll up her sleeve and get down to business. Along the way, she matures, her hide toughens, she befriends outcasts who opens her eyes and broadens her horizons. In the end, she’s evolved into a confident, all around better person and this land that was once thought of as bleak, is now a thing a beauty, for our heroine has changed and we, the audience, have changed along with her. Cue tear.
I find I am describing Kit Tyler’s character development, but I am also describing the evolution of Hattie Inez Brooks. I love reading about the hardships of the American pioneering experience and fortunately, I can cross reference Hattie Big Sky to the PBS documentary Frontier House. The message I got from Frontier House is that homesteading is tough and trying to carve out a civilization in Montana is a perpetual race to survive the winter. Homesteaders spend their entire year prepping for the winter because, well, if you aren’t prepared for the blizzard, you are screwed with a capital S.
Running a successful homestead is sometimes too tough for entire families to handle, so imagine the colossal undertaking it must be for Hattie to manage the homestead on her own. At first I was skeptical that a sixteen year old girl can do this by herself. Actually, I thought it was virtually impossible. Then I discovered on the back cover that this story was based on the real life pioneering experience of Kirby Larson’s great-great grandmother, also named Hattie Inez Brooks, and I was blown away. Imagine the grit and sheer force of will Larson’s grandmother must have possessed for her to even attempt this Herculean feat.
I’ve always had a soft spot for characters who rise to meet these seemingly impossible challenges. A secret part of me wishes that I could be placed in a similar situation where I will be forced to roll up my sleeves and see what I’m really made of. I don’t think I’ve ever been really challenged in my life (in this magnitude anyways), and I can’t help but wonder what untapped potential is in me and how sad it would be if I live my entire life never knowing what I’m capable of. I want to be tapped too!
On a hormonal note, I’d just like to mention that this book comes complete with a handsome villain, Traft Martin, whose villainy is painted in shades of grey. The sprawling Martin ranch adjoins Hattie’s homestead and Traft’s ambitions of expanding his land means he must somehow get his hands on Hattie’s claim. Traft tries to thwart Hattie’s success at every turn, though he has some redeemable, gentlemanly features that makes for a complex, three-dimensional villain.