“I won’t go.”
“It’s for the best, Ma says,
yanking to braid my hair,
trying to make something of what’s left.
Ma and Pa want me to leave
and live with strangers.
“I won’t go.”
Twelve-year-old girls on the Kansas prairie don’t have much say in where they go, so the very next day after learning that her parents have hired her out to a distant neighbor for six months, Mavis Elizabeth Betterly jolting along in a springboard wagon with her dad. It’s fifteen miles to the Oblingers’ sod hut. Fifteen miles doesn’t seem that far, but it takes most of the day. And once Pa waves good-bye and his wagon disappears over the horizon, it may as well be Madagascar.
Mr. Oblinger is okay, but the missus is not pioneer stock—only a few years older than May, totally overwhelmed by the vastness of the prairie and lack of company. “’The quiet out here’s the worst part,/thunderous as a storm, the way/ it hounds you/inside/outside/nighttime/day.’” After a few weeks Mrs. Oblinger gets a strange gleam in her eye and tells May she’s going out for a ride. She doesn’t return. Mr. Oblinger sets out after her, and that’s the last we see of either of them.
Meaning, May is alone in the soddy with winter coming on. She handles it as many children would, I think, with large gaps between knowledge and execution. When she should be thinking about storing food, she’s remembering practical jokes with her brother Hiram, and her failures with reading, and her frustrated ambition to become a teacher. As chilly autumn winds howl through the night she curls up under a buffalo hide and simmers with resentment. “Why must I be stuck/ twice/ where I don’t want to be,/ with no way to tell Pa, Ma, Hiram,/ with/ no one to come for me?”
After a few weeks, she starts out for home armed with nothing but a broom: “I grasp the handle,/throw my pillowcase over one shoulder,/and step out onto the prairie.” But sheer space overwhelms her and she retreats, sobbing, to her dubious refuge. Days creep by, increasingly stark and slim: “Time/was made/for others,/ not for someone/ alone.” Sometimes she’s active and purposeful, other times she retreats into her memories. The days become a test of character, a cocoon from which she will emerge stronger or not at all.
As I’ve indicated, the entire novel is written in blank verse, the very sight of which will strike fear and loathing in some readers’ hearts. It’s almost all introspection, which will turn off a lot of other readers, especially boys. But there’s value here, for a sojourn into someone else’s experience and an examination of that perennial question fiction poses: What would I do? May B. performs no impressive feats of survival, but she survives, learns and grows. Which is just what kids are supposed to do.
- Worldview/moral value: 4 out of 5
- Literary value: 4 out of 5
Hattie Brooks is only sixteen when an unknown uncle dies and leaves her a 340-acre claim in Montana (“Bring warm clothes and a cat,” advises a neighbor). Her life is at a point where it could use some direction, so she is soon on board a westbound train, heading from Iowa to the frontier with hopes of “proving up” her homestead. An orphan from the age of five, Hattie has never had a permanent home: this chance is like a bolt from the blue Montana sky.
But Montana is far from welcoming in January, and the house on her claim is no better than a shack. When Karl and Perilee Meuller (the friendly neighbors who met her at the railroad station) say good night and return to their own house, we feel Hattie’s desolation. She has a lot to learn and a lot of toughening-up to do. While far-flung neighbors like the Muellers, Rooster Jim and Leafie Purvis lend a hand, the real work is up to Hattie. It’s not just a claim she’s proving up; it’s herself too.
Blizzard and drought furrow the land; debt and weariness furrow the brow. Besides, it’s 1918 and America is at war. The pressure is on to prove one’s patriotism by saying the right things and suspecting the right people–for instance, people with German surnames. Hattie is further pressured by Traft Martin, scion of the county’s most prominent ranching family, to sell her claim. Traft is the closest thing to a villain in this piece, but he’s no moustache-twirling stereotype. He struggles with his own problems and the solution to their conflict may surprise some readers.
Hattie Big Sky won a Newbery Honor Medal in 2007, so it’s been around awhile but is worth a second look. Kirby Larson based this story on the real Hattie Inez Brooks, her own great-grandmother. Discovering a record of the actual claim number led her to dive into the journals and memoirs of other Montana pioneers, and before long she had begun a story about early 20th century homesteading. Many of the events she describes are actual happenings, folded neatly into the plot like the raisins in Perilee’s wartime spice cake (recipe included, along with Hattie’s Lighter-than-Lead Biscuits). Readers who groove on the details can get right down in the dirt with Hattie as she put in her first flax crop and disciplines her first set of roosting hens. Loss and pain are part of this life: “It seems the misfortune of one can plow a deeper furrow in the heart than the misfortune of millions.” But joy and triumph balance it out. Prayers ascend with hope, and the story comes to a satisfying if unexpected conclusion.
- Worldview/moral value: 4.5 out of 5
- Literary value: 4 out of 5