3.04.2009

Hattie on Her Way by Clara Gillow Clark, 208 pp RL 3

With Hattie on her Way, Clara Gillow Clark continues the story of the independent, sometimes prickly Hattie Belle Basket that she began in Hill Hawk Hattie. Although the challenge of passing as a boy and helping her father raft logs down the Delaware River is behind her, life in a mansion on the hill in Kingston, NY with her Grandmother Hortensia and her faithful housekeeper Rose is far from easy.

Above all else, Hattie struggles the grief she still feels for the loss of her mother, Lily, as well as homesickness for her Pa and their cabin in the woods now that they have a new found respect and understanding of each other. Hattie's Grandmother treats Hattie with kindness, but with a quiet distance as well. Rose, or Buzzard Rose, as Hattie dubs her due to her red face and wattle-like neck, treats Hattie like an interloper and calls her a "breaker." Hattie assumes Rose thinks she will be careless and break the valuables in the house, of which there are mysteriously few, but by the end of the book we know that Rose means something entirely different. Rose also seems to be holding a grudge against the skinny, tanned, scrappy Hattie who looks and acts nothing like her soft, delicate mother did. To add to this, there is the spoiled, stuck-up Ivy Victoria (for the Queen of England) Blackmore Vandermeer living opulently in the mansion next door. Hattie quickly learns that Ivy's invitation to tea is not to make friends but to pump Hattie for information on her secretive mother and absentee grandfather. Ivy Victoria tells Hattie that her mother says Hattie's Grandmother and her mother Lily helped to kill Grandfather and bury him in the vegetable garden.

The thought that anyone would imply that Hattie's mother had anything to do with a murder, let alone her own father's, is more than Hattie can bear and she runs home. What follows is an intriguing plot thread. Bits of information about Lily, such as her refusal to continue taking the cure for her pleurisy and her fascination with fairies, from Hill Hawk Hattie are elaborated on in Hattie on her Way. As Hattie grows closer to her Grandmother she learns more about her mother and Grandfather and the secret that they shared. This aspect of the story makes for some very emotional scenes as well as yet another level of understanding and connection for Hattie and her father, Amos, by the end of the book. It also allows Clark to introduce the character of Madame Blatzinsky, Mrs Vandemeer's spiritualist, who conducts seances and "speaks" to the dead. During this time in history, the religion of Spiritualism was founded and seances became popular among the wealthy. Mary Todd Lincoln even held seances in the White House in the hopes of speaking to her dead son Willie. Often times, the mediums were revealed to be frauds, working with a hidden crew of assistants in an effort to deceive.

While nothing quite as suspenseful as Hattie's raft ride over a dam and the secret of her gender occurs in Hattie on Her Way, the more subtle mysteries of family ties and class differences make a story that often has Hattie and her struggle to find her place in her new home taking a back seat. Horace Bottle, a skinny, voracious, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde loving academic tutor who takes up residence in mansion brings levity to the story, especially when he gives Hattie and her mother's old dress a make-over in preparation for Ivy Victoria's birthday party and Hattie's introduction into society. Their entrance at the party allows Hattie, when asked if Horace is her brother, the hilarious line, "He's a Bottle; I'm a Basket." My favorite line, however, comes from the always well-spoken Hattie who, when explaining to her father why she cannot leave her Grandmother just yet says, "Grandmother's sort of like a good wool sock with a hole in it, Pa. It still has a lot of wear in it, but that hole is bound to get bigger if it isn't mended proper."

Like Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maude Montgomery, Hattie is an independent spirit. However, Clara Gillow Clark's books are written in a shorter format and the trials faced by Hattie are of a less mature and less complex nature making these books perfect for readers who have finished Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and are looking for a new window into the past but are not quite ready to tackle Anne Shirley...

Readers who enjoyed this book and were especially fascinated by the character of Madame Blatzinsky might like A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz. Although slightly longer and a little bit more complex in its themes, Schlitz's book, set in 1909, is so evocative of the time and her characters so vivid and compelling that readers up for a longer book will not be able to put it down. Maude Flynn is eleven at the start of the story, the same age as Hattie, and just as self-governing and strong willed as Hattie. An orphan, Maude finds herself adopted into a family of elderly sisters, one of whom is a Spiritualist, and their deaf and mute housekeeper, Muffet. The charismatic sister of the three, Hyacinth, is a "medium"who tempts Maude with promises of love and affection and convinces her to play the key role in her biggest seance yet, with bittersweet results.

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