A 20th Century Pioneer

In these days of an enormous to-read list on goodreads and an online library reserve system, I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the stacks any more.  Though I probably stop by the library about once a week, I truly get in and get out.  On Saturday, the same song was playing on the radio when I got back to the car!  But a few weeks ago, I felt like browsing.  My branch library is less than a year old, so browsing is a true pleasure–all the books are bright and shiny!  It was there that I found Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.

207798Two things convinced me to check it out: a homestead story from 1918, past what people assume is the “pioneer” era and the fact that the book is based on the author’s family history.

Hattie is a wonderful character–just 16, she’s an orphan that has been shuffled from home to home.  Her aunt has found her a job at a boarding house, so tells Hattie that it’s time to quite school and move out.  And then a letter arrives–an uncle has died and left her his homestead, though she has to “prove up.”  So, she heads to Montana.

Those first few chapters about her life in Montana are amazing.  Here’s a girl that has left a community with running water, cars, and other “creature comforts” and is now living in a shack.  She is grateful that her aunt had refused to upgrade her stove, so she knows how to cook on a wood stove.  She arrives in the dead of winter–on the first morning, her hand freezes to the water pump.    Can you imagine going back in time that way?

In our tendency to generalize about the past, we forget how long the frontier era lasted, and how long it took for modern technology to reach all the corners of the United States.  I applaud this book for reminding us that the West wasn’t settled as soon as the Pa Ingalls decided to settle down.

Throughout the novel, Larson weaves in the bigger story of World War I (Hattie is writing a friend from school who is serving abroad) and anti-German sentiment (her closest friends are German).  It’s a solid, engaging novel and none of the extra bits of history seem tacked on.

Hattie also has a close, personal relationship with God.  When she’s alone, working her land, she talks to God and I’m so glad these conversations became a part of the novel.  I adore this passage:

To keep myself company, I’d taken to conducting chore-time conversations with God.  My self-imposed rule was that each conversation must start on a thankful note.  Sometimes that kept the discussion from really getting going.  I lifted my petticoat out of the wash basket.

“Lord, I do thank you for that warm wind and the promise of spring.” I bent for another clothespin to secure the petticoat.  “And I am very thankful that my wash load is small.”  Here I thought of Perilee, washing for her family of five.  “I count it a true blessing that there are no diapers in my wash.”  I shuddered to think of that.  “Now, you know I’ve been working on keeping a sunny lookout on life, but I must speak to you about Violet, who is more devil than cow.”

How can you not fall in love with a character that has that kind of spunk?

But there is one thing about this book that just breaks my heart.  It’s this passage, from the author’s bio:

Thanks to her eighth-grade teacher, Kirby Larson maintained a healthy lack of interest in history until she heard a snippet of a story about her great-grandmother’s homesteading by herself in eastern Montana.  Efforts to learn more about Hattie Wright’s homesteading felt like detective work; why hadn’t anyone told Kirby research could be this much fun?

Sigh.  I do wonder what this teacher did that turned her off so much.  But at least Larson shared her new-found love of history in a delightful book.  Hopefully, she’s been able to convert a few more folks into history lovers.

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