The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Summer Reading III: Hattie Big Sky

I follow a lot of teachers and authors on Twitter, especially those who work with young people in one way or another. I also follow a lot of education researchers, policymakers, and other commentators. As a result, my Twitter feed is usually full of tweets about different books and the authors who wrote them.

This is how I came to learn about Ms. Kirby Larson and her excellent young adult historical fiction series about a girl named Hattie Inez Brooks. The first book in the series, Hattie Big Sky, follows Hattie’s story as an orphan who has always been Hattie Here-and-There, going from family member to family member, without a home of her own. Her current guardian, Aunt Ivy, decides to send Hattie to work in a boarding house as a housekeeper, but then a letter comes from Montana. In the letter,  Hattie learns that her uncle Chester has left her his homestead claim. Hattie jumps on the opportunity to have a home of her own and heads off to Montana. The story was inspired by Kirby Larson’s grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who did indeed live on a homestead in Montana. But because there were no first-hand accounts of her experiences, Ms. Larson used other historical documents to provide the foundation of her story.

While in Montana, she meets wonderful neighbours, makes fast friends with some of the other quirky “honyockers” nearby, and also struggles with the issues relating to the United States’ involvement in World War I. A large portion of the story is told by way of letters that Hattie writes to her high school chum Charlie, who is fighting the war in Europe as an airplane mechanic. Hattie also comes face-to-face with the realities of prejudice and fear as she confronts the way her German neighbour, Karl Mueller, is treated by members of the community. This story will keep you captivated until the very end. The characters are all very well-written. Some of them make you want to hug them, others make you want to yell at them for their poor choices. All of them feel like real people.

One of the more interesting revelations in this story, at least to me, was that sauer kraut was actually renamed liberty cabbage because people wouldn’t by foods with German names. This struck very close to my memories of French fries being renamed freedom fries after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. (Ms. Larson actually makes this same connection in her author’s note at the end.)

The story was inspired by Kirby Larson’s grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who did indeed live on a homestead in Montana. But because there were no first-hand accounts of her experiences, Ms. Larson used other historical documents to provide the foundation of her story.

I read Hattie Big Sky by listening to it as an audiobook that I downloaded through the Champaign Public Library. This was my first experience with an audiobook, and I must say that I quite enjoyed it. While I wasn’t able to curl up in bed and read at the end of the day until I fell asleep, I was able to read during my bicycle commutes to and from work-related events, while cleaning the house, and while doing other things online. I recently received a wonderful gift from Ms. Larson: a audiobook copy of the second installment in this series, Hattie Ever After.

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I am looking forward to reading more of Hattie’s adventures!

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