Over the Mountain


Over the Mountain

A coming of age story set in Alabama in the sixties, during the turbulent era of civil rights and the Cold War.

Over the Mountain by Katherine Stillerman Book Cover

It’s 1961, and Harriet Elizabeth Oechsner has almost completed her sophomore year in high school, when she’s faced with the dreaded news that her family is moving again. This time it’s because her father Erik’s liberal theology and commitment to social justice has angered his parishioners, and he’s been forced to resign from his church after only a year as pastor.

The resulting move thrusts the five members of the close knit Oechsner family into a community bathed in privilege, steeped in tradition, and staunchly resistant to change. Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, is a community separated only by a mountain ridge from the struggle for human rights being waged on the other side. And yet, it’s a community so distanced by privilege and color from its parent city and the needs of the poor and disenfranchised within, that it may as well be on the other side of the world.


Harriet must once again assume the role of the outsider adapting to another new school, her third in three years. Her encounters with new teachers and peers lead her into situations that are at times painful, lonely, embarrassing, shocking, and often humorous.

Harriet’s adjustment to her new school is fraught by teenage angst and emotion; and, as a child of the Cold War and the civil rights era, she is thrust into the realities of injustice, separation, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. However, the story maintains a hopeful tone, as the plot is interwoven with themes of inclusiveness, loyalty, friendship, and reconciliation.

Readers who fell in love with Hattie Robinson in Hattie’s Place and In the Fullness of Time, will be happy to know that Over the Mountain takes up two generations later, with Hattie’s granddaughter and namesake, Harriet, as the main character.

Study Guide

Study Questions:

  1. With which of the Oechsner family members do you identify most? Do any of them remind you of your own family members? Why?
  2. In what ways did you relate to Harriet’s experience of feeling like an outsider as a new student at Shades Creek High School? Did any of Harriet’s teachers remind you of teachers you had in high school?
  3. When Squeaky locked the door to the fallout shelter, Harriet shuddered to think what it would be like in the midst of a real nuclear attack to be stranded outside the door, or even worse, to be inside listening to the cries of someone banging to get in. Which do you think would be worse? If you were inside, could you make the decision not to let anyone else in?
  4. During Fritz and Frankie’s visit, the Oechsner family confronted the issue of mixed-faith marriage. How do you feel about the way the issue was resolved? What did Pauline mean when said, “I wish Fritz and Frankie’s religious differences boiled down to simple things like whether to drink grape juice or wine, or the matter of how the symbols in the church are arranged…But I’m afraid their differences are a lot more fundamental”?
  5. Lulu told Grandmother Louisa that adults always tell kids that things are complicated when they don’t want to explain them. Was she right? Do you agree with the way Grandmother Louisa responded? In the case of Junior’s suicide, do you agree with Pauline and Erik’s decision to answer Harriet’s questions honestly because they thought “the half-truths and opinions I’d hear might be more troubling than the raw truth”?
  6. How do you relate to Harriet’s cheerleading experience? Do you respond to disappointment by keeping it all inside?
  7. What did you think about Mr. Norton’s behavior toward Harriet at the dinner table? Should she have reported it to her parents? Would this scene have played out differently if it had been set in current times? (Me too movement?).
  8. A prominent theme of the book is racial injustice. Would that theme play out differently if the book had been written about the present?