Susan Andersen’s latest release, The Ballad of Hattie Taylor, is a love letter to sweeping rural dramas like The Thorn Birds or Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books that straddles the line between historical romance and historical fiction.
Hattie Taylor has always felt like an outsider in Mattawa, Oregon. But a few people make her feel welcomed and loved, chief among them being Jacob Murdock. At the age of 11, Hattie was taken in by Jake’s mother, Augusta, despite her son’s reservations. As years pass, Hattie keeps her crush on Jake a secret, watching as he gets married and then must endure the untimely deaths of his wife and child. But now Hattie is an adult, and she hopes to make her intentions known to Jake.
Jake’s feelings for Hattie are complicated. Not only is he 11 years her senior, but he’s always seen her as a surrogate sister to be protected and watched over. They’ve always been close, but now that closeness seems to be turning into something more, spurred on by the loneliness and grief he feels.
This is a romance for the patient reader. Andersen covers a robust span of time as she explores the integral life experiences of her main characters. (Please also exercise some caution; someone close to the Murdock family rapes Hattie, and her process of healing is integral to the plot.) Mattawa is a small town, but its sprawling emotional landscape, full of complexities and characters, is as engrossing as the best afternoon soap opera. Andersen’s detailed approach to crafting a sense of place shines, particularly as she depicts the passing of each season.
Hattie and Jake’s romance is slow, thoughtful and meandering. Both are figuring out their lives and their identities. How does Jake handle the new role of widower? How will Hattie learn the differences between love and infatuation? Most notably, Hattie’s journey includes the very frustrating realization that she lives in a world ruled by men, most of whom have no care for her own thoughts and feelings. The line between empowerment and disillusionment is a fine one, and Andersen’s acknowledgement of that difficulty makes Hattie’s story all the more memorable.
The Ballad of Hattie Taylor oozes nostalgia even as it vacillates from a lively, page-turning coming of age story, a tender romance that emphasizes care and patience, and a harrowing tale of one woman’s experiences on the American frontier. Hattie’s happy ending with Jake is hard won, but her infectious optimism will have readers with her every step of the way.