A Common Language, my Seton Hill thesis novel, owes much to Kirby Larson’s Hattie Big Sky. When I was in my second term at Seton Hill, my mentor realized that while I was getting a good feel for the characters in my thesis novel, the plot was lumbering along with no real direction. I had several episodes, but nothing propelling them forward. She suggested I read Hattie, which had won a 2007 Newbery Honor. Even though Kirby later told me she didn’t think the plot of Hattie was its strongest point, it did the trick for me. A year later, we purchased our first house after a long, complicated house-hunt…less than a mile from Kirby. Since then, I’ve gotten to meet her at several local writing events, shared emails and blog comments, and grown to admire not only her writing but her warmth and generosity toward her readers and fellow authors.
But you’ll get your fill of Kirby, as she and her latest project will be featured for a record three weeks here at Damsels in Regress. For now, I’d like to give a brief review of her first historical novel, one that taught her about her family’s past, jump-started her career, and gave her a love of history and historical fiction that continues to this day.
Hattie Big Sky tells the story of sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks, who was orphaned early in life and lives with many sets of relatives without ever feeling truly at home. When she learns her mother’s brother has died and left her his homestead in eastern Montana, she jumps at the chance to make a life for herself. This isn’t Little House, though–this is autumn of 1917. Hattie takes a train to her new home, armed with meager provisions and her loyal cat, and writes letters to her school friend, Charlie, who is fighting World War I. She finds a lean-to shack on her new property, along with a strict deadline of when she must “prove up,” or build a fence and start a farm on her land.
Before Hattie can become completely overwhelmed, she befriends her nearest neighbors, the Muellers, and Karl Mueller gives her a leg-up with the fencing and advises her on the farm. Perilee, Karl’s wife, becomes Hattie’s friend and older sister, and Perilee’s oldest children, Chase and Mattie, visit Hattie regularly. Hattie learns to milk cows, live on little food, plant flax and wheat, and quilt alonside the Muellers and other locals. But Karl Mueller is German, and during World War I, that’s a quicker way to make enemies than friends. And “proving up” in a harsh, changable climate like eastern Montana is harder than it looks.
I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s historical fiction at its absolute best: characters who live firmly in their time and place but possess qualities readers of today can relate to. The setting is vivid and well-researched, the pacing solid, and there’s enough tension in the background to tie the episodes of Hattie’s life together into a complete story.
If you want to win a signed copy of Hattie Big Sky, leave a comment here by noon Friday EDT (remember, I’m Pacific time, so I’m giving you East-Coasters an advantage!) about a book that has taught you something about yourself or your chosen profession. I will draw a winner before I catch my plane to Europe, though you may have to wait awhile to get your book. Good luck, and stay tuned for more Kirby goodies!