A granddaughter of California railroad magnate and noted collector of art and rare books, Henry Edwards Huntington, Harriet Green Huntington grew up in a Pasadena, California, family that encouraged intellectual endeavors. She attended high school at Westridge School, in Pasadena. She then enrolled in Smith College in 1927, but transferred to Stanford University the following year. In 1930, after her junior year, she left school and married Albert Doerr, Jr., a Stanford '30 graduate whom she had known in Pasadena. The Doerrs spent the next 25 years in Pasadena, where they raised a son, Michael (d. 1995), and a daughter, Martha.
Albert Doerr's family owned a copper mine in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, and in the late 1950s, the Doerrs moved to Mexico where Albert was engaged in restoring the mine. Harriet had accompanied Albert to Mexico when he had business there many times, beginning in 1935, but this time, they remained until 1972, when Albert died ten years after being diagnosed with leukemia. The time she spent in this small Mexican mining town would later provide Harriet Doerr with the both subject matter and the settings for much of her writing.
Following her husband's death, Harriet Doerr returned to California. At the suggestion of her son Michael, a 1953 Stanford graduate, she decided to finish the education which had been interrupted so long before by her marriage. She enrolled once again at Stanford, and in 1977, took her BA degree in European history. While at Stanford, she began writing, with sufficient success to earn a Stegner Fellowship in 1979, and she soon began publishing short stories.
Her first novel Stones for Ibarra, was published in 1984 and won that year's National Book Award for first work of fiction. Her second novel, Consider this, Senora, was published in 1993, and a collection of short stories and essays, Tiger in the Grass: Stories and other Inventions followed in 1995. A television adaptation of Stones for Ibarra was presented by Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1988.