In 1918, Hattie Brooks receives word that an uncle she's never known has passed away and left his homestead in Montana to her. She travels across the country to plant roots in this new place. She is understandably hesitant when she first realizes how much work she has to do to "prove up" her land, but she tackles the many jobs with determination and her own two hands. ( Read my full review. )
Author Kirby Larson now shares her family's stories - and a thing or two about cow pies - with readers.
Tell readers about the real Hattie, whose trials and tribulations inspired your novel. How much of the story is fiction, and how much is non-fiction?
The real Hattie, Hattie Inez Brooks, married my great-grandfather when she was in her 30s. Our family knew/knows very little about her childhood. I was able to verify that she had indeed homesteaded near Vida and an internet pen-pal provided me of a photo of her when she was 20ish. She was a behind the scenes person her whole life, it seemed, so I was especially glad to be able to give her a leading role in my book. The story is carefully researched and nearly every event is based on fact, but tweaked to make it work for the story. For example, I did read in one homesteader's journal about a time when a wolf bit off a calf's tail. That brief entry led to the scene with Violet, Hattie and the wolf.
We briefly discuss the end of the book, so avert your eyes if you have yet to read the book!
Real life Hattie proved up her land, correct, while her fictional self did not. Why the different ending?
My great-grandmother was successful in proving up on her claim, but many, many of the homesteaders were not successful. I felt it was more important to reflect what happened to the majority of the "honyockers" rather than what really happened. And I also felt that Hattie's goal to find a place to belong, a home, could be met in other ways, not simply in finding a physical place to call home.
Spoilers over. Resume reading.
Any chance for a sequel?
I genuinely thought I was done with Hattie's story when I completed HATTIE BIG SKY, but so many people have written asking for a sequel that I am currently mulling that over. I have to find the right story to tell and haven't done that yet. I was at work on a middle grade historical novel, but am going to set that aside for a bit to work on another young adult historical.
Hattie may be shelved in the teen section, but the appeal seems to stretch beyond that in both directions, as kids and adults alike are enjoying the story. As you wrote the story, who was your intended audience?
I hope this doesn't sound disrespectful to my readers, but I didn't think at all about the audience as I wrote the book. What I focused my energy on was telling Hattie's story "true."
How long did it take to complete the novel? What was the most interesting fact about pioneer life that you discovered while doing your research?
The seed for the novel was first planted in 2000; I sold it to Michelle Poploff at Delacorte in 2004. If you had told me, in 1999, that I'd soon be spending three years on an historical novel, I would've thought you were crazy. I didn't even like history! But now I am hooked and love digging around trying to authentically recreate another time and place. I learned so many fascinating facts while I was doing the research, it's hard to pick one. I will tell you that in the name of research, I did try to find out what buffalo chips smell like when they're being burned. A friend of mine runs a cattle ranch in Jamestown, California and I asked her to send me a cow pie so that I could burn it and see what it smelled like. Unfortunately, the one she sent wasn't thoroughly dried and she sealed it in a zip-loc bag so it was, shall we say, unburnable when it arrived. I made the executive decision not to continue this line of research so I still don't know what burning buffalo chips smell like. If one of your readers knows, I'd love to find out!
What are your favorite pioneer-era words and phrases?
I didn't use actual slang words, per se, except for "necessary" (which is what ladies called the privy or outhouse). "Honyockers" was an interesting word, but it was deragotory so I can't say it was a favorite.
What are your favorite modern-day conveniences?
Having just gone through a 4 day power outage, I have to say electricity ranks right up there!
Your picture book The Magic Kerchief (illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger) is a fun story about an elderly woman whose harsh words push others away - like Ebenezer Scrooge, without the riches. What inspired this story?
This story found me as I was waiting at a red light one day when my kids were little. I was doing the mom thing - mentally thinking about what to have for dinner, whether I'd signed all the right permission slips, etc. - when two words popped into my head. The words were "noodle noggin." I had no idea where they came from, but by the time the light turned green, I'd forgotten all about dinner and was trying to imagine who might say such words. By the time I got home, I had envisioned Griselda (who I first named Katerina) but it took ten years to get her story just right.
In the mid-nineties, you had two elementary school stories published: Second-Grade Pig Pals and Cody and Quinn Sitting in a Tree. Were your kids your earliest readers and critics? What did Quinn think about seeing her name in print?
Quinn liked seeing her name in print; our son was older and would not give me permission to use his name though I tricked him by naming the big brother Tyson (our son's name is Tyler).
You have to understand that to my kids I was just the mom who accidentally put mittens in the refrigerator and burned broccoli. They read my books (at least my daughter did!) after they came out but not before. Now, they are adults and they are very proud of me and know their job is to turn my books face out anytime they're in a bookstore.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
I'm assuming you mean children's books. This is excruciatingly painful but I'll try:
MING LO MOVES THE MOUNTAIN by Arnold Lobel (which is the book that inspired me to write for children and young adults)
HOW TOM BEAT CAPTAIN NAJORK AND HIS HIRED SPORTSMEN by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake
MY MINNIE IS A JEWEL by Tricia Springstubb, illustrated by Jim LaMarche
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson
THE PINBALLS by Betsy Byars
FEED by M.T. Anderson
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate diCamillo
MATILDA BONE by Karen Cushman
ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky
SUSAN AND ARABELLA, PIONEERS by Rhoda Morris (my mother's favorite book)
Take a trip to Kirby's website.