Author: Kirby Larson
Title: Hattie Big Sky
Publication information: Delacorte, 2006
Category or genre: Historical fiction for Young Adults
Number of pages: 304
Awards: Newbery Honor Book, 2006 Montana Book Award
Kirby Larson wrote this book after finding out her Grandmother was a homesteader who had a claim of her own. This knowledge awoke desired to learn all she could about homesteading. She dove into letters and journals of homesteaders to get a real feel of life on the plain, and used many real events in her book Hattie Big Sky. The book is written from the first person perspective of Hattie Inez Brooks, named after Larson’s grandmother. The use of letters and newspaper articles, written by the fictional Hattie, gives the book an internal dialog that is both engaging and fascinating. As an agricultural literary student I found the focus on the natural flow of the highs and lows, of farm life, insightful. The book gives a glimpse at our country during a time of optimism and fear; optimism born of the belief that anyone can be a land owner if they work hard enough, fear of failure and from Spanish influenza. Overall it is an excellent book about traditional life in 1918.
Hattie Brooks, a 16 year old orphan, has just received word that her Uncle on her Mother’s side has died, and left Hattie his homestead claim in the wilds of Montana. Hattie learns that he has one year left to “prove up,” the land or lose it. “Proving up” land for a homesteader meant that they needed to make capital improvements on the land, such as a barn and fence. The land needed to be cleared with in the first year, and brought into cultivation on a percentage of the claim every year for five years. Lastly they were expected to pay a modest filling fee at closing if they “proved up.” (Homestead act, archives.gov) The claim owner needed to be the head of household, the husband or a single woman, and over the age of 21.
Hattie arrives at the claim in the heart of winter; this teaches her from day one that the task of running her own homestead maybe more then she bargained for. The cabin is small, drafty, and infested with mice; fortunately her cat provides warmth and rodent control. Chores have to be done in all weather. Hattie discovers that her Uncle has obtained all the supplies for building the fence, so Hattie works hard and quickly during the muddy part of spring, before planting can begin, erecting her 7920 feet of fencing. (Hattie Big Sky, p. 78) Helpful neighbors teach her how to read the earth and to know when it is time to plant. The ground is ready when she can take a handful of dirt, and upon squeezing it, it does not “clump together wetly or crumbly dryly.” (Hattie Big Sky, p. 147) Hattie is advised to plant “twenty acres of flax and twenty more of wheat.” (Hattie Big Sky, p. 147) While out plowing her field, Plug her trusty horse, looks back at Hattie like she is crazy. Hattie’s response “Yes, we are going to plow this field. You and I. [Even] If it kills us… And it may.” (Hattie Big Sky, p. 148) Her neighbors tease her about plowing in circles, though they agree to help her with their tracker plowing 60 acres, if she lets them have the harvest from 20 of those acres (Hattie Big Sky, p. 149). Even through a dry summer Hattie’s field blossom into “green velvet quilts.” (Hattie Big Sky, p. 165) Hattie gets warnings that this is “next-year country,” (Hattie Big Sky, p. 186) and that something inevitably will go wrong, like how last year the grasshoppers got the entire crop. Hattie learns how true that phrase is when it comes time to harvest her own crops. In addition to the skills Hattie learns that are part of “proving up” her land, she learns many others. Hattie experiences milking her cow and raising her chickens. Her dismal skills in cooking improve with necessity. Knitting is her Achilles heel, but she finds a lot of talent in quilting. Hattie grows with every challenge she faces, from helping birth a baby, and fighting the deadly Spanish influenza, to defending her right to the claim.
This book was an excellent example of homesteading. All requirements for “proving up” a homestead were address. As soon as Hattie arrives in Montana we see an example of the closing cost fee, and she thinks about funds much of the book. For the capital improvements requirement there is already a barn and she builds the fence herself. With the help of neighbors the cultivating requirement is met. Hattie was challenged to her right to the claim because she was 17, not the 21 required. The challenge was awarded in Hattie’s favor citing that the head of household requirement trumped the age requirement, and that claims are able to be given to a family member upon death. While looking for a book on homesteading Hattie Big Sky is a must. Author Kirby Larson used real events from journals, and letters, in the book. I know I will be reading it again to my son for a history lesson. Hattie Big Sky a shining example of homesteading and life in 1918.
Larson, Kirby. Hattie Big Sky. New York: Delacorte Press, 2006. Print.
"The Homestead Act of 1862." National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act/>.
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