Sunday, October 4, 2015
"And God bless Uncle Chester. Amen."
There is a nostalgic joy that comes with revisiting your favorite books after years of not touching them. It's the same way with characters -- at least, for me. Book characters are like friends. Many of them are dear friends. And when I'm separated from them for long periods of time, like friends in real life, I start to miss them with an ache that can only be cured by opening up the book again.
Recently I was re-united with one of my very best friends of literature -- a southpaw orphan girl with big dreams by the name of Hattie Inez Brooks.
I first read Hattie Big Sky several years ago -- I must have been ten or eleven -- and I pretty much loved it from page one. Hattie's gumption inspired me, her sense of humor tickled mine. The story was told in such a wholesome, straightforward, no-frills way that it just sent happy shivers all through me. (It still does.) Sometimes I Like a book, and sometimes I Really Like a book. Well, I LOVED Hattie Big Sky with a passion as big as the Montana prairie.
So, upon discovering the wildly exciting piece of information that THERE IS A SECOND HATTIE BOOK, I did what any truly obsessed book-lover would do. I completely freaked out. A sequel to one of my favorite books?!? And I never knew! MUST READ IT.
Still.....I was a little hesitant. What if the second book didn't live up to my expectations? What if Hattie had changed? What if it disappointed me horribly? Despite my trepidation, I grabbed the book first chance I got. After reading the front jacket (and finding out that Hattie turns down Charlie!!! What!!!), I was even more unsure. But I held my breath and dove in.
I don't know what I was so nervous about. Kirby Larson still has her incredible gift with words. The characters hadn't exchanged personalities while my back was turned. Hattie Brooks, changing? Piffle. Never. She's as steady as the Montana sky. :-)
I LOVED the second book, even as much as I loved the first. Maybe....maybe even more. It's possible. Here's my review of both.
(Warning: lots of squealing exclamations and rapturous sighing to follow. I already told you I loved these books. You are about to find out just what I meant.)
In Hattie Big Sky, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old orphan Hattie Brooks, a small timid girl who has spent most of her life being passed from this relative to that. At this point, she lives in Arlington, Iowa, with her stiff-necked Aunt Ivy and her boring and stodgy but vaguely kind Uncle Holt, who doesn't really do anything but read the newspaper.
When she receives a letter from her deceased Uncle Chester bequeathing her his homestead in Montana, she's shocked. And...strangely excited. Could she really go out there by herself, prove up on the claim, have her own home? Somewhere that was really hers, where she really belonged? She decides to do it. And so begins Hattie's adventures.
This books combines everything I love in a story. A gritty heroine who is determined and independent but still feminine, quirky and lovable supporting characters, just the right amount of tension where tension is needed. While living on Uncle Chester's homestead, Hattie makes the acquaintance of her neighbors -- an old smelly bachelor by the name of Rooster Jim, a plucky old woman named Leafy Purvis, a self-sure ranch owner named Traft Martin, and the Mueller family: Karl, a quiet hardworking German man; Perilee, who becomes Hattie's dearest friend in her new home; and their children, Chase and Mattie. Hattie works hard to prove up on her uncle's claim, all the while keeping up a regular correspondence with her friend Charlie Hawley from back in Iowa, who is away in Europe fighting the Germans in World War I.
Hattie herself is a writer, though at this point she hasn't fully realized that. Much of the story is told through her letters to Charlie and his letters back to her. Later on, she begins writing a newspaper article for the paper back in Iowa, telling about her homestead adventures.
In the end, Hattie fails to prove up on Uncle Chester's claim. I like that. We don't always get what we want in life, even if we try hard, and Hattie tried as hard as anyone could have and still didn't quite make it. Though she is sorry to leave her beloved Montana, it's time for her to move on, and we say goodbye as she boards a train headed west.
I haven't read this book in several years, so admittedly I can't remember all of the details. But I remember all the things I loved most about it. Hattie's spunk, the strength of her friendships, her unwavering strength even in the hardest of times, and her cozy wit are what I love most about this character. She's like a crossover of Mattie Ross and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I want to be like Hattie. I want her to be real so I can talk to her, but as it is I'm okay with settling for reading about her. :-)
Hattie Ever After picks up in 1919, with Hattie working as a maid in a boarding house in Great Falls, Washington. She still has big dreams, but now her dream is not to have her own homestead. It's to become a big-city reporter.
Finding this out, I was a leeeeeetle disappointed at first. I didn't want my Hattie to go all batty (hey, that rhymed) about moving to a big city, getting a fancy job, being a big-shot, and all that. I wanted her to marry Charlie, have a nice little home of her own, have children, and be happy. Of course she could write, but none of that soap-box suffragette I-don't-need-no-man business, please. That's not my Hattie.
Well, that's not my Hattie, which she proved straight off! Hattie's motives are never selfish. With this reaffirmed in my brain, I wanted to hug her and tell her I was sorry for ever imagining that she'd act that way.
Charlie, who is now working for the Boeing Airplane company (smart boy, that Charlie Hawley), comes to see Hattie where she works. Having not seen him since he left for the war years ago, Hattie is overjoyed to see him. But...she's not ready to be his wife yet. Charlie, being the first-rate DARLING that he is, understands and doesn't push her. (Can we have a collective swoon from everyone who's ever read these books? Ohhh, Charlie!!!!!)
When Hattie is suddenly handed a job as a costume mistress with a vaudeville theater company headed for San Francisco, she jumps at the chance. Of course, patching up sequined gowns and men's trousers is not her dream occupation, but San Francisco...that's a place where a body can be someone. Plus, Hattie wants to find out more about her late Uncle Chester, and a curious envelope delivered to her addressed to her uncle suggests that San Francisco might be the place to do it.
The setting of this second book is very different from the first. Hattie Big Sky takes place on the wide open Montana prairie; Hattie Ever After takes place in early twentieth-century San Francisco. Hattie's adventures here are much different than they were -- and yet, in many ways it's not so different at all. Hattie's still got her gumption. So when she lands a job as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, you're really not surprised.
I LOVED how Hattie found her inner writer self. I LOVED how Charlie came to San Francisco. I LOVED how Hattie made peace with all that she discovered about Uncle Chester. Let's save a lot of time and space and just say that I LOVED pretty much everything about this book. As a sequel, it was perfect. It had everything I wanted. It satisfied me that Hattie would end up happy, doing what she was made to do, with who she was made for.
(And yes, Hattie marries Charlie. I don't consider that a spoiler, because anyone with any brain could see that from practically the beginning of the first book. If you don't have a brain, you have my most sincere sympathy. That must be hard for you.)
I stayed up late into the night to finish the second half of this book, reading with a flashlight under my covers. My sister, trying to sleep in the bunk above mine, probably heard me gasp and sigh a few times; I COULD NOT HELP IT. Hattie's heartfelt prayer asking for understanding almost had me in tears. And Charlie's last letter to Hattie....well, my heart dissolved into something sort of like bananas when you mash them, or cotton candy, or melted butter, or something of that nature. (It's okay, I didn't really need my heart anyway.) It was utterly beautiful. When I closed the book on the last page, my heart was full of happy flutters. Two of my favorite characters had found happiness together, and I couldn't be more overjoyed with the way it had happened. :-D
In the author's note at the end, I read that Kirby Larson had never intended to write another book about Hattie, but she got so many requests from readers and was badgered so much by fans who wanted more of Hattie's story that she finally gave in. And ooo-boy, am I glad she did! Both of these books hold a special place in my heart. If you haven't met Hattie Brooks, get thyself to a library post-haste. Read these books. You'll thank me, I promise.
Thus ends my spiel. :-)