In this short historical novel, based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Hattie Burley, a mother of six, faces major challenges as she attempts to build a new life for her family in the wilds of Wisconsin.
John Burley, a Chicago dairy worker, has ambitions of becoming a pastor and farming the land in Wisconsin. He buys land and persuades his wife to travel ahead of him, with their children, and establish the family while he sends money and supplies. Hattie is resourceful and determined—and she needs to be. Her land is covered in tree stumps, and the family’s log cabin has no shingles on the roof and wide gaps in its log walls.
As Hattie and her children adapt to their new environment, the challenges of settling new land are vividly detailed. From building an outhouse to canning and pickling food for winter, the family pulls together in sickness and in health, but depends on parcels from John in Chicago. And as the seasons and years pass, Hattie’s husband shows no sign of moving to Wisconsin.
A key strength of this story is its meticulous attention to detail. Scraps of fabric are stuffed into chinks in the wall, and floors are lined with the Chicago Tribune newspaper under the rugs to try and keep the family warm over winter. Hattie forages for morel mushrooms and edible greens and tends to the inevitable sickness and accidents that affect her children, including rheumatic fever, a gunshot wound, and rotting teeth.
However, the story feels less like a novel than a relatively simple accounting of actual events. It’s driven by exposition and is light on characterization and dialogue. Readers looking for a believable and engaging representation of a settler’s life in the early 20th century will be well served by this clear, well-written account.
Overall, the book is recommended to those with an interest in social history and life in the mid-West.
Also available as an ebook.