Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
Although Fridays are predominantly reserved for manga, I thought July Fourth trumped the usual today. Kirby Larson’s Hattie Big Sky, a 2007 Newbery Honor title, examines American patriotism from a perspective I can’t remember encountering before in fiction. While the target audience is younger readers, surely adults can appreciate pondering and confronting questions of loyalty during war. Sounds (sadly) timeless, no?
Larson’s great-grandmother was Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who applied for a homestead on her own in eastern Montana in 1914. “Though my great-grandmother didn’t keep diaries or journals,” Larson writes in her ending “Author’s Note,” “other ‘honyockers’ did. … The reasons for heading west were as varied as the homesteaders themselves. But common themes stitched together their way through these stories: endless work, heartache, loss, and, incredibly, fond memories of those hardscrabble homestead days.”
At 16, Larson’s fictional Hattie has been an orphan for far too long, shuttled between distant relatives who might share similar genes, but are certainly not family. When she inherits a Montana claim from a late uncle, she takes the chance of leaving behind her “Hattie-Here-and-There”-past and finally make a home of her own.
Even in the faraway wilds, the first World War affects daily life. Hattie writes often to a school friend who is fighting somewhere in France. She attends fundraising events and buys war bonds. But she refuses to take part in the prevalent myopia that is making scapegoats of the German American Muellers, who have provided only open arms and boundless support, who have quickly become the unconditionally loving family Hattie never had. As war news escalates, the price of proving her loyalty becomes a virtually impossible demand.
“My research quickly showed me I could not set a story in 1918 without speaking to the issue of anti-German sentiment,” Larson explains. “Many of the incidents in Hattie Big Sky were based on actual events, including the mob scene with Mr. Ebgard,” a character who is violently targeted. Ironically, tragically, almost a hundred years later, history was repeating itself: “This book and the Iraq war started at nearly the same time. On the very day that I read of merchants renaming ‘sauerkraut’ and calling it ‘liberty cabbage’ in 1918, I heard of restaurants changing ‘french fries’ to ‘freedom fries’ in 2003. The more I studied life in 1918, the more I saw parallels in the present.”
That we have learned so little is surely disturbing. That we challenge loyalty based on labels and not the human being and his/her deeds is even more troubling. As we celebrate this glorious Independence Day, how we define patriotism and loyalty are certainly questions to consider … not just today, but every day.
Tidbit: Six years later, Larson seamlessly continues Hattie Ever After.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult