Hill Hawk Hattie by Clara Gillow Clark is a superbly crafted gem of a book that fell through the cracks of the shelves of the bookstore where I work. I was fortunate to receive a review copy from Candlewick Press of the newest book about Hattie, Secrets of Greymoor, and didn't realize there were two other books about her until I began doing research before writing my review. Happily, I went back and read the first two books about Hattie and her remarkable life.
Set in 1883 in the hills near Pepacton, New York, on the east branch of the Delaware River, Hill Hawk Hattie is the story of eleven year old Hattie Belle Basket and her Pa, Amos. When the story begins, Hattie and her father are still mourning the death of her mother, Lily a few months earlier. Hattie's Ma had been a society girl raised in the city of Kingston, PA, but there are hints at a troubled past as well. It was there that she met Amos Basket, clean-shaven and well dressed after rafting logs down river. The two feel in love and returned to Amos's cabin in the mountains, Hattie's Ma turning her back on her family, but holding herself apart from the Hill Hawks - another name for hillbillies - also. Lily valued education, teaching Hattie on her own and sending her to school when she could, but since her death Hattie has been stuck at home tending to chores, and not very well, her anger, grief and resentment growing. Her father has all but stopped talking to her, "ordering [her] around with curse words like [she's] nothing," and she is growing to hate him, believing that he must hate her as well. As she says about herself and her Pa, "Guess Ma was the sugar that kept us sweet." When her father acknowledges her birthday with boy's clothes, not the new dress and purple hair ribbons, her mother's favorite color, she had hoped for, Hattie is convinced of this. Amos tells her she might as well wear boy's clothes since she'll be coming to the woods with him from now on to help with his work. That night Hattie takes her mother's scissors and cuts off both of her braids, hiding them under her mattress along with her mother's half-empty diary that she now records some of her own thoughts in.
But, her Pa has his reasons, reasons he doesn't reveal to her until the very end of the story. Earning his living as a logger, Hattie's father fells trees during the winter then lashes them together to ride down river to Easton, PA in the Spring, returning home to make the trip seven or eight more times. As with all great historical fiction, the author reveals something to the reader, such as a way of life from the past that has died out, in a way that dovetails with the main characters and plot seamlessly. Clark does this wonderfully as she breathtakingly describes the rafters' journey down the river in the Spring right after the ice breaks up. What propels this story from good to great, however, is the presence of Hattie, now passing as a boy, on the raft along with her father and his partner and his partner's son. When Rastus and his boy Jasper meet up with Hattie and her Pa on her first day of work in the woods, Amos introduces her as his son, Harley. She and Jasper become fast friends and, being two years older and more experienced, he is eager to show her the ropes and tell her of the expedition that is ahead of them. Hattie's father has warned her never to reveal that she is a girl, although he does not go into specifics as to why. There is a very funny scene when the "men" are being sent off on their journey by Jasper's mother and sisters and his oldest sister flirts with Hattie. She does her best to ignore awkward situation this but Jasper teases her heartily.
Once the group embarks on their two day journey it is clear why Hattie must pass as a boy. Not only do the men bunk together in hotels when they stop for the night, an ice jam forces them off the river and into a barn the next night. Amos, who is known for his rafting and fighting skills, narrowly averts an all-out brawl one night in a tavern when Hattie's real gender is hinted at. Despite the fact that Hattie desperately misses being a girl, her time on the river with her father is exhilarating and educational, physically and emotionally. She sees her father steer the boat through some very rough patches, including over a dam, and gradually stops hating him as her admiration for his skills grows. He even gives her the chance to steer the raft one day, telling her she has "the gift." But his eyes have a sad look in them, not the proud one Hattie was expecting when she looked up. Hattie grows sad as well, thinking Pa will never call her his girl again now. There are more twists and turns ahead for Hattie as well as a bittersweet ending and a bit of redemption for herself and her Pa.
Clara Gillow Clark's book is rich with details, compelling characters and layered plot, all in less than 200 pages! Despite the cover of the book, I had no idea when I started reading that Hattie would be passing as a boy and doing man's work for part of the story. Reading this book made me realize just how easy it is to be a woman today, in so many ways. Sometimes it seems like works of historical fiction are crowded with spunky, independent thinking girl/woman characters. Perhaps this is because of the difficulties and limitations women faced over one hundred years ago. The most interesting historical fiction seems to be about the girls and women who break free of these constraints. The women who manage to live within these repressive societal rules usually merit the role of saintly mother in works of historical fiction, Caroline Ingalls and Nancy Hanks Lincoln as depicted in My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story come to mind immediately. This leads me to wonder if there are any works of historical fiction, for kids or adults, that depict the lives of the women who didn't break any molds in their time but instead lived quietly and happily with what was available to them... I'm sure there are writers out there who could make this interesting and I'm also sure these books exist and I just don't know about them - yet!
I highly recommend this book, and I think readers will also want to know more about Hattie Belle Basket's adventures. Not only is is well written, but it covers a little known (to me) area of the geographical and historical United States. Hattie's experiences on the river and her struggle to do as her father tells her while maintaining her sense of self make her a knotty but engaging character.
You can read Clara's blog about writing and books at Clara Gillow Clark, which is a different from her website linked above.
For readers who like this book, I recommend:
Hattie on Her Way by Clara Gillow Clark
Secrets of Greymoor by Clara Gillow Clark
My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story by Harry Mazer
Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan