Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665
Thematically, Hattie Big Sky is a novel of the western frontier in the finest sense. It celebrates the tradition of the American Dream, which can be achieved in the great, unexplored wilderness by any individual with the courage to venture forth. Stifled and unwanted at her relatives' home in Iowa, Hattie is thrilled to learn that an uncle has left his homestead claim in Montana to her. She leaves everything behind, boards a train, and resolutely turns her face to the West. As it turns out, Hattie's efforts to prove up the homestead come up short, but her failure does not mean the end of her dream. Uncle Holt sends her the fare to travel on to Great Falls, and though the money is actually enough for Hattie to go back east to Iowa if she so desires, her uncle wisely observes that he suspects her future is in the other direction. The American frontier, limited only by the ocean, is the land of promise and possibility, and so Hattie faces West, where she will continue to seek her dreams.
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Hattie Big Sky, with its youthful female protagonist, is a story about growing up and the loss of innocence that goes along with the process. In this regard, Charlie's experience mirrors Hattie's, as both begin the story with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Charlie enlists in the Army with brash confidence, secure in the belief that he will act heroically and come through completely unscathed in defeating the Kaiser, and Hattie heads pell-mell into unsettled Montana, never considering that she might be unequal to the task of single-handedly proving up her claim. As Charlie comes up against the reality of the simultaneous drudgery and horror of war, so Hattie is stunned by the enormous power of the elements and the outright cruelty with which humans are capable of treating one another. Both Charlie and Hattie emerge from their experiences with a clearer vision of what life is really all about, their naive enthusiasm tempered by the awareness that in many circumstances, there are no easy answers.
The underlying themes of war and its effects both on the battlefield and at home permeate the narrative. Especially conflicting are the phenomena of patriotism and ethnic stereotyping. Charlie enlists to do his patriotic duty, and Hattie struggles to reconcile her own unexamined understanding of patriotism as a positive force against its manifestation in her homestead community as heavy-handed persuasion to contribute beyond what is sensible, and outright persecution against anyone with German ties. Hattie wonders what Charlie would think about what is happening at home from his perspective of facing the enemy on the front lines. Although he never specifically addresses the issue, based on his growth in understanding of war in general, the reader gets the sense that Charlie, like Hattie, would probably be unaccepting and appalled. Hattie on her part recognizes the enormity of the question of patriotism, and is "conflicted" as "thirteen million men" are called to register for the draft. In the area of ethnic stereotyping, however, she is more certain in her beliefs, secure in the knowledge that it is not where a person lives, but how he lives, that counts.
Through the motifs of the big Montana sky and the quilt Hattie pieces together during her year on the prairie, the book addresses the themes of the universality of experience and the need of humans for each other. The sky over Hattie in Montana is the same as the sky that stretches over Uncle Holt and Aunt Ivy in Iowa, and even includes Charlie in France, and from this awareness, Hattie draws comfort. Still, the Montana sky is so vast that it makes Hattie achingly aware her own insignificance and loneliness, prodding her to seek solace in community. Hattie finds a home on the prairie, "in the hearts of the people she (meets)", and the precious ties she establishes are represented in her quilt, a tangible symbol of her oneness with the whole of humanity.