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  • Hattie Big Sky
  • Written by Kirby Larson
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On Sale: December 26, 2007
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On Sale: April 10, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7393-5573-2
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Alone in the world, teen-aged Hattie is driven to prove up on her uncle's homesteading claim.
For years, sixteen-year-old Hattie's been shuttled between relatives. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she courageously leaves Iowa to prove up on her late uncle's homestead claim near Vida, Montana. With a stubborn stick-to-itiveness, Hattie faces frost, drought and blizzards. Despite many hardships, Hattie forges ahead, sharing her adventures with her friends--especially Charlie, fighting in France--through letters and articles for her hometown paper.

Her backbreaking quest for a home is lightened by her neighbors, the Muellers. But she feels threatened by pressure to be a "Loyal" American, forbidding friendships with folks of German descent. Despite everything, Hattie's determined to stay until a tragedy causes her to discover the true meaning of home.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

December 19, 1917 Arlington, Iowa

Dear Charlie,

Miss Simpson starts every day with a reminder to pray for you—and all the other boys who enlisted. Well, I say we should pray for the Kaiser—he’s going to need those prayers once he meets you!

I ran into your mother today at Uncle Holt’s store. She said word is you are heading for England soon, France after that. I won’t hardly be able to look at the map behind Miss Simpson’s desk now; it will only remind me of how far you are from Arlington.

Mr. Whiskers says to tell you he’s doing fine. It’s been so cold, I’ve been letting him sleep in my bedroom. If Aunt Ivy knew, she’d pitch a fit. Thank goodness she finally decided I was too big to switch or my legs would be striped for certain.

You should see Aunt Ivy. She’s made herself a cunning white envelope of a hat with a bright red cross stitched on the edge. She wears it to all the Red Cross meetings. Guess she wants to make sure everybody knows she’s a paid-up member. She’s been acting odd lately; even asked me this morning how was I feeling. First time in years she’s inquired about my health. Peculiar. Maybe this Red Cross work has softened her heart.

Mildred Powell’s knitting her fifth pair of socks; they’re not all for you, so don’t get swell-headed. She’s knitting them for the Red Cross. All the girls at school are. But I suspect the nicest pair she knits will be for you.

You must cut quite the figure in your uniform. A figure eight! (Ha, ha.) Seriously, I am certain you are going to make us all proud.

Aunt Ivy’s home from her meeting and calling for me. I’ll sign off now but will write again soon.

Your school friend, Hattie Inez Brooks


I blotted the letter and slipped it in an envelope. Aunt Ivy wouldn’t think twice about reading anything she found lying around, even if it was in my own room, on my own desk.

“Hattie,” Aunt Ivy called again. “Come down here!”

To be on the safe side, I slipped the envelope under my pillow, still damp from my good cry last night. Not that I was like Mildred Powell, who hadn’t stopped boo-hooing since Charlie left. Only Mr. Whiskers and my pillow knew about my tears in the dark over Charlie. I did fret over his safety, but it was pure and sinful selfishness that wet my eyes at night.

In all my sixteen years, Charlie Hawley was one of the nicest things to happen to me. It was him who’d stuck up for me when I first came to live with Aunt Ivy and Uncle Holt, so shy I couldn’t get my own name out. He’d walked me to school that very first day and every day after. Charlie was the one who’d brought me Mr. Whiskers, a sorry-looking tomcat who purred his way into my heart. The one who’d taught me how to pitch, and me a southpaw. So maybe I did spend a night now and then dreaming silly girl dreams about him, even though everyone knew he was sweet on Mildred. My bounce-around life had taught me that dreams were dangerous things—they look solid in your mind, but you just try to reach for them. It’s like gathering clouds.

The class had voted to see Charlie off at the station. Mildred clung to his arm. His father clapped him on the back so often, I was certain he’d end up bruised. Miss Simpson made a dull speech as she presented Charlie with a gift from the school: a wool stocking cap and some stationery.

“Time to get aboard, son,” the conductor called.

Something shifted in my heart as Charlie swung his foot up onto the train steps. I had told myself to hang back—didn’t want to be lumped in with someone like Mildred—but I found myself running up to him and slipping something in his hand. “For luck!” I said. He glanced at the object and smiled. With a final wave, he boarded the train.

“Oh, Charlie!” Mildred leaned on Mrs. Hawley and sobbed.

“There, there.” Charlie’s mother patted Mildred’s back.

Mr. Hawley took a bandanna from his pocket and made a big show of wiping his forehead. I pretended not to notice that he dabbed at his eyes, too.

The others made their way slowly down the platform, back to their cars. I stood watching the train a bit longer, picturing Charlie patting the pocket where he’d placed the wishing stone I’d given him. He was the one who’d taught me about those, too. “Look for the black ones,” he’d told me. “With the white ring around the middle. If you throw them over your left shoulder and make a wish, it’s sure to come true.” He threw his wishing rocks with abandon and laughed at me for not tossing even one. My wish wasn’t the kind that could be granted by wishing rocks.

And now two months had passed since Charlie stepped on that train. With him gone, life was like a batch of biscuits without the baking powder: flat, flat, flat.

“Hattie!” Aunt Ivy’s voice was a warning.

“Yes, ma’am!” I scurried down the stairs.

She was holding court in her brown leather chair. Uncle Holt was settled into the hickory rocker, a stack of news- papers on his lap.

I slipped into the parlor and picked up my project, a pathetic pair of socks I’d started back in October when Charlie enlisted. If the war lasted five more years, they might actually get finished. I held them up, peering through a filigree of dropped stitches. Not even a good chum like Charlie could be expected to wear these.

“I had a lovely visit with Iantha Wells today.” Aunt Ivy unpinned her Red Cross hat. “You remember Iantha, don’t you, Holt?”

“Hmmm.” Uncle Holt shook the newspaper into shape.

“I told her what a fine help you were around here, Hattie.”

I dropped another stitch. To hear her tell it most days, there was no end to my flaws in the domesticity department.

“I myself never finished high school. Not any sense in it for some girls.”

Uncle Holt lowered one corner of the paper. I dropped another stitch. Something was up.

“No sense at all. Not when there’s folks like Iantha Wells needing help at her boardinghouse.”

There. It was out. Now I knew why she had been so kind to me lately. She’d found a way to get rid of me.


From the Hardcover edition.
Kirby Larson

About Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson - Hattie Big Sky

Photo © Krystel Porter

My great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, died when I was 10 years old so I really never got to know her. What mattered to me as a kid was that she baked the best Snickerdoodle cookies without ever measuring one ingredient.

About five years ago, I heard that this tiny woman once homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana. The idea seemed so unbelievable that I had to find out if it was true. I typed in Hattie’s name on the Bureau of Land Management Web site and a claim number popped up! Hattie did indeed homestead near Vida, Montana, in June of 1914. Four years later, after proving up, she sold out, and moved to Spokane where she eventually married my widowed great-grandfather and helped raise his four children.

Hattie never kept a journal so I don’t know what prairie life was like for her. I learned that she traveled to Montana from Iowa with some cousins, but her claim was a long ways from any of theirs. A shirttail relation gave me a photograph of her with her sister’s family. She’s wearing the same apron–at least the same style–she wore as she whipped up those Snickerdoodles. I obtained a copy of her homestead records so I know where her claim was and that she set fence and planted flax and wheat. That is all I know about her personal story.

There is an old writer’s adage to write what you know. After learning this tantalizing snippet about Hattie, I began to write about what I didn’t know: about heading west via trains, cars, and trucks instead of covered wagons; about what it took to ready 320 arid acres for planting; about the fact that people’s loyalty to this country was challenged because of where they were born or what their thoughts were about World War I; about staying warm in winters which could get to 65 below; about summer hailstorms–called White Combines–that could mow down one year’s crop, one year’s hope, in minutes.

What I didn’t know kept me researching and writing for several years. Though I was able to get many materials through Interlibrary Loan (God bless our library system!), it took three trips to Montana to complete my research, including three days in a smoky newspaper office, reading every single issue of the 1918 Wolf Point Herald.

What I didn’t know led me to create an independent female character, 16-year-old orphan Hattie Inez Brooks, who jumps at the chance for a home of her own when her uncle leaves her his homestead claim. She goes to Vida, bringing with her “warm clothes and a cat,” as her uncle’s will advised. She battles the prairie, the weather, her own pride and ignorance, and the tumultuous feelings stirred up by rampant anti-German prejudice.

What I didn’t know was that writing historical fiction is nearly as delicious as my great-grandmother’s Snickerdoodles. It’s CSI: History as I poke around in the past, trying to uncover just the right detail to help me recreate another time and place.

I’m a quote collector and one of my favorites is from Russell Hoban’s A Mouse and His Child: “You’ve got to take those daring leaps, or you’re nowhere.” (Notice he says take, not make!) Five years ago, I took a daring leap to write Hattie Big Sky. I can’t wait to see where my next leap takes me.

To learn more about Kirby, visit www.kirbylarson.com; to learn more about her novel, visit www.hattiebigsky.com
Praise | Awards

Praise

★ “Larson creates a masterful picture of the homesteading experience and the people who persevered.”–School Library Journal, Starred

Awards

HONOR 2007 Newbery Honor Book
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions|Teachers Guide

About the Guide

Hattie Brooks is only 16 years old when she inherits her uncle’s homestead claim in Montana. Orphaned at a young age, she isn’t sure she has what it takes to prove up on this claim, but she does know that she is tired of living here and there with distant relatives. In the winter of 1917, Hattie packs her few possessions and boards a train headed west. Her only companions are her cat, and letter from Charlie, her best friend who is fighting in France during World War I. It turns out that proving up on a claim takes more than courage, but Hattie is determined to beat the odds, and with the help of kindhearted neighbors, she gives it her all. Hattie proves her independence and courage, but an unforeseen tragedy forces her to examine her future, and decide whether Montana will be a part of it.


“Writing in figurative language that draws on nature and domestic detail that infuse her story with the sounds, smells, and sights of the prairie, she creates a richly textured novel full of memorable characters.”–Booklist, Starred

“Larson creates a masterful picture of the homesteading experience and the people who persevered.” –School Library Journal, Starred

About the Author

Kirby Larson never liked history until she heard the story of her great-grandmother homesteading by herself in Montana. She became interested in knowing more about Hattie Wright and the courage it took for her to tackle the prairie alone. Larson traveled to Montana and spent countless hours reading courthouse records and newspaper morgues. The result is Hattie Big Sky, a 2007 Newbery Honor Book. Larson lives with her husband in Kenmore, Washington. She is the mother of two grown children.

For more information about the author, visit www.kirbylarson.com

Discussion Guides

1. Describe Hattie’s relationship with Aunt Ivy and Uncle Holt. What does Uncle Holt see in Hattie that Aunt Ivy doesn’t? How does Uncle Holt continue to support Hattie after she moves to Montana?

2. Hattie travels to Montana on the Great Northern Railway. She reads a pamphlet on the train that describes Montana as “the land of milk and honey.” Discuss Hattie’s first impression of Montana. How might Hattie describe this land by the end of the novel? In the last chapter, Hattie goes to Seattle. What does she expect to find there that she doesn’t have in Montana?

3. Explain what Perilee Mueller means when she tells Hattie that her resemblance to Uncle Chester goes beyond looks. How does this give Hattie a sense of family? Why are the items in Uncle Chester’s trunk so important to Hattie? There are many mysterious things about Uncle Chester. How does this mystery give Hattie the courage and determination to prove up on the claim?

4. Perilee and Karl Mueller meet Hattie at the train, and welcome her to their family. How does their relationship grow as the novel progresses?

5. Karl Mueller is mistreated by the citizens of Vida because he is German. How does Hattie’s friendship with Karl and Perilee make her a victim of bullying? How do the bullies create an atmosphere of mistrust and fear? At what point does Hattie experience the most fear? She says, “The worst thing of all is standing by when folks are doing something wrong.” (p. 164) Explain how Hattie attempts to right the wrongs.

6. Hattie says, “I guessed Charlie and I were in the same boat. We’d both signed on for something we’d envisioned as heroic and glamorous.” (p. 120) How is Hattie’s effort to save her uncle’s claim heroic? Discuss how Charlie's idea of a hero changes after he witnesses the death of his comrades.

7. Describe how Hattie changes in the year that she spends on the Montana prairie. Debate whether her idea of “home” is different by the end of the novel. Hattie says, “I’d arrived alone, and I wanted to leave that way.” (p.282) Why is this so important to her? How is she a success even though tragedy prevented her from proving the claim?

8. At the beginning of the novel, Hattie says, “My bounce around life had taught me that dreams were dangerous things.” (p. 3) Why was Hattie so afraid of dreams? How does she learn that dreams do come true? What about Charlie? Do his dreams come true? How do their dreams collide?

Suggested Readings

A Day No Pigs Would Die
Robert Newton Peck
Historical Fiction: 20th Century • Coming-of-Age
Grades 7 up
Laurel-Leaf PB: 978-0-679-85306-0 (0-679-85306-5)

Ashes of Roses
Mary Jane Auch
Historical Fiction: 20th Century
Immigrant Experience • Perseverance
Grades 7 up
Laurel-Leaf PB: 978-0-440-23851-5 (0-440-23851-X)

Shackleton’s Stowaway
Victoria McKernan
Historical Fiction: 20th Century • Perseverance
Grades 7 up
Laurel-Leaf PB: 978-0-440-41984-6 (0-440-41984-0)
Alfred A. Knopf HC: 978-0-375-82691-7 (0-375-82691-2)

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