The Ballad of Hattie Taylor

Written by Susan Andersen
Review by Sarah Johnson

Around the turn of the 20th century, an eleven-year-old red-headed orphan arrives in a small town, and her irrepressible curiosity and outspokenness shake things up. There are echoes of Anne of Green Gables in Andersen’s first historical novel, which is both a spirited romance and a complex coming-of-age story, but it aims to comment primarily on how societal pressures stifle women – with mixed results.

In 1899, young Hattie Taylor travels to Mattawa, Oregon, to stay with a distant cousin, Aurelia Murdock. Aurelia’s 22-year-old son, Jake, a lawyer and rancher, is charmed by the petite firebrand, whom he treats like a sister. He guides her through puberty – nobody, even his mother, informs her about her changing body – and becomes her trusted confidant. Her only other friend is a male schoolmate, Moses Marks, and their closeness causes tongues to wag, too. As Hattie turns eighteen, her childhood crush on Jake continues, and Jake, unhappily married to a gentle woman who fears intimacy, begins seeing Hattie’s passionate nature in a startling, uncomfortable new light. When Jake takes a drastic action intending to protect Hattie, it has awful consequences.

As a feminist romance, the story offers conflicting messages. Hattie is a multifaceted, resilient character who credibly works through personal pain and emerges even stronger. Yet a subplot about her beloved career goes unaddressed, and part of the conclusion is disconcerting for many reasons. Descriptions overemphasize the brawny physicality of both Jake and Moses, and for a sensitive friend, Jake can be inexcusably clueless; he doesn’t feel like Hattie’s intellectual equal. To the author’s credit, though, the story holds nothing back, however awkward the situation. This blatantly honest approach is admirable, and the strong plot keeps the pages turning despite the inconsistencies. By turns, it will have you grinning, cringing, shaking your head in sorrow, and swelling with pride at Hattie’s courage.