Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
It is 1918, and sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks, who has been shuttled among relatives for as long as she can remember, is currently living in Arlington, Iowa with her Uncle Holt and Aunt Ivy. Hattie's best friend, Charlie Hawley, has enlisted to fight in the war. Although she believes Charlie is sweet on someone else, Hattie considers him a "good chum," and writes to him frequently. Unexpectedly, Hattie learns that an uncle she never knew has died in Montana and left her his claim of three-hundred-twenty acres. Without hesitation, she jumps at the chance to finally make a place of her own.
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In Wolf Point, Montana, Hattie is met by her uncle's friends, Karl and Perilee Mueller and their children Chase, Mattie, and baby Fern. She discovers that in order to keep her uncle's claim, she must "prove up" by cultivating forty acres, setting four-hundred-eighty rods of fencing, and saving money to pay the final fees, all within the next ten months. With the support of kind neighbors, she learns to get along in the harsh Montana winter. During a sudden blizzard, Chase and Mattie are lost trying to get home from school, and fortuitously find their way to Hattie's place. When the weather breaks, Karl arrives after an all-night search, frantic and frostbitten. Born in Germany, Karl speaks with a thick accent, but his gratitude is evident. When the weather warms and Hattie begins work on her fencing, she discovers Karl has already set a long stretch for her.
Leafie Purvis is another neighbor who had been a friend of Hattie's uncle. While she is visiting one day, rowdy cowboys appear, driving a terrified cow before them. Leafie fires a shotgun blast to stop the shenanigans. The cow belongs to the Muellers, and its tormentors are members of a "patriotic organization," the Dawson County Council of Defense. Their lawless activity is an attempt to intimidate Karl Mueller, because he is of German descent.
Hattie struggles to understand how anti-German sentiment because of the war can extend to innocent people like Karl and his family. She receives a visit from Traft Martin, head of the Council of Defense, and her confusion deepens. Traft helps Hattie clear her fields and invites her to a dance. Although he does chide her about her association with the Muellers, Hattie is drawn to the handsome young man. Hattie receives a letter from Charlie, who is impatient to face the enemy in France. She also hears from Uncle Holt, who says he has been sharing her letters to him with the editor of The Arlington News. Impressed with her writing, the newspaper has offered to pay for regular articles about homesteading on the Montana prairie. Charlie's next letter is terse; his unit has been in battle, and he has now seen the real face of war.
The Muellers' barn, purposely set afire, burns down. When Hattie returns from trying to help put out the blaze, she sees Traft riding away from her house, and discovers a drenched, smoldering bale of hay outside her own barn. Perilee tells Hattie that it might be better if she stays away from the family for awhile, because of anti-German sentiment directed against them and their acquaintances. Hattie, of course, refuses, and as the two spend time in comfortable camaraderie, Hattie realizes the value of her friendships and entertains the thought that there might be things more important than proving up on a homestead claim.
With her neighbors' help, Hattie manages to sow her fields in flax and wheat. Her uncle has left a debt for fencing materials, and even with her newspaper money, Hattie wonders how she will manage to prove up and save the fees to claim her homestead come November. The crops are growing, but there is no rain. Traft, who wants to add to his homestead so that he can run cattle, offers to purchase Hattie's land. Although she knows his proposal is generous, Hattie refuses, for reasons she cannot quite explain. Under pressure from the Council of Defense, Hattie pledges one hundred dollars for the war effort, money she can ill afford. She witnesses yet another incident of persecution by Traft and his cowboys and steps forward to defend the victim, who says the evil of the war "is so big...the fight has spread far beyond the battlefield." Hattie wonders what Charlie, who is fighting the Germans overseas, would think about what is happening in Montana.
Traft offers to buy Hattie's land a second time, and she again refuses. She angrily tells him she saw him ride away from her house the night the Muellers' barn burned down. Taken aback, Traft tells Hattie he doused a fire set by others near her barn, and tries to defend his actions against those suspected of not supporting the war effort. Hattie counters by asking why he himself has not gone off to fight, inadvertently touching upon a sensitive issue for him. Angry and embarrassed, he confesses that he did enlist, but was refused because his mother had secretly finagled the governor to appoint him to the Council of Defense in lieu of sending him to the front lines. Hattie receives another letter from Charlie, whose bluster is gone. Charlie is no longer sure he will survive the war, and says that "killing is nothing to brag about...nothing at all."
Rain falls, and it appears the crops will be saved, but before threshing can be completed, a freak hailstorm decimates the harvest. Tragedy strikes again in the form of Spanish influenza. Mattie dies, and after all that, Hattie knows she is beaten. She tells Traft she will accept his offer, but it is too late; he will be able to buy her land for next to nothing after she loses it for not meeting her obligations. The war ends, but the Muellers, haunted by memories of Mattie, move to Seattle. Charlie is coming home, and confesses that he is sweet on Hattie, but Hattie is not yet ready for a relationship. She has indeed lost her homestead, but through her experiences has discovered a home "in (her) own skin...and in the hearts of the people she (has) met". Hattie secures a job in Great Falls and will work to pay off her debts. Charlie, meanwhile, finds employment in Seattle, and there is hope that one day, the two will find their lives joined there, in the West.