Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hattie Big Sky

Here's a quick review I did of Hattie Big Sky recently. A slightly edited version will be appearing in I&F on December 1st.

Orphanages, adoption, and unsavory situations; stories about orphans are practically the stuff literature is made of. Or, at least, they own a decent portion of it, so that even the average non-reader knows a few. From Grimm to Dickens, we have the pattern laid out and our expectations ready for how the plot will work; the drama should start about the time the orphan’s adopted by someone abusive or a heartless relative and resolved by either escape of the victim or conversion of the perpetrators. Sixteen year-old Hattie Inez Brooks, however, is already beyond all that, leaving her unpleasant relative behind when a previously unknown uncle bequeaths her a 320-acre claim in Montana.

That is to say, he bequeaths her an unproven 320-acre claim in Montana.

Indeed, proving up, as it’s known, is half the trouble of it all. The Montana prairie may be the land of big skies and bigger dreams, but the law is quite firm with homesteaders. Buildings must be built, a percentage of the land must be tilled and planted, a fraction of the property fenced in, and a fee paid, all within three years. One might think it’s a goal actually achievable, but when Hattie arrives, her problem is not that she has only three years; it’s that she only has ten months—her mysterious uncle started the claim two years, and two months ago, and the law isn’t about to rewind the clock just because it’s hers now; a claim’s a claim, no matter who’s tilling the soil.

Both fortunately and unfortunately for Hattie, she’s not alone. The good neighbors are more than willing to lend a hand when the going gets rough and frequently save her from her own stupidity; while the more politically-minded ones are just as willing to make her life that much harder. Yet, if the Mother Nature of Montana has it her way, neither party may get what they want. The lesson that Hattie has yet to learn is that despite all their personal dramas, every claim owner in Montana bows down the same mistress, Dame Nature. After all, she is homesteading in “next-year country”; next year will be better.
Hattie tells her own story, and is our narrator month by grueling month as she teaches herself to cook, quilt, farm, and survive sixty-four below weather, mainly by the sheer strength of willpower. There’s a reason why the Hattie comes before the Big Sky in the title; more than homesteading, Montana prairie, or all other things combined, the story is first and foremost about Hattie and her development into a confident young woman.

The writing could’ve benefited from a few touch-ups by a good editor, but it’s not bad, and certainly more than tolerable. If nothing else, the bizarre prairie-life fun facts make up for it (they become particularly entertaining when Hattie acquires chickens); and the lengthy bibliography at the end assures the reader that the author, Kirby Larson, definitely did her homework on the matter. Hattie Big Sky is a wonderful, if painfully brief, romp in the world of prairie life that both lovers of the subject and those indifferent to it will enjoy.

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