Hitty, Her First Hundred Years

41457

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1930

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years

by Rachel Field

Age: 8+

Interests: dolls, toys, history, American history

Macmillan: 1929

262 pages

Other books about adventurous toys: Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, Miss Hickory, The Mouse and His Child, Clown, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Also by this author: Prayer for a Child, Calico Bush

Hitty is a handmade wooden doll crafted by a travelling peddlar sometime in the 1830s for a little girl in Maine. Hitty is conscious and aware of her surroundings, and though not entirely mobile, she is actually able to shift slightly from time to time, and somehow by the end of the book she is happily writing her memoirs with a quill pen. In the course of the story she experiences many adventures, travels extensively, and suffers many dramatic turns of fortune. Her life on a whaling vessel ends with a terrible shipwreck, after which Hitty is seized by island “savages” and placed in a temple as some kind of idol. She is rescued from them and carried on to India, where she lives for a time in the basket of a snake charmer, along with his snake! American missionaries carry her back to Philadelphia, and she goes through several owners, but also spends quite a lot of time lost in sofa cushions and gathering dust in attics. As the story continues she is plucked from the trash time and time again by those who appreciate her craftsmanship and intriguing expression. For a time she is a fashion doll in New York, meets author Charles Dickens, attends a concert by opera star Adellina Patti, and has the great American poet John Greenleaf Whittier write a poem about her. Stolen from a display at the New Orleans Exhibition, Hitty is even set adrift in a basket on the Mississippi River. All of her adventures lead her back to the very house in rural Maine where she began, and finally to an antique shop where she sits on a shelf and finds the time to write her memoirs.

Throughout her travails Hitty is rather prim and upright, but learns humility through her misfortunes, reminding herself when caked with Mississippi mud for example, that mud is very good for the complexion. While she does take great pride in her fancy outfits, as time goes on she is simply glad to fall into the hands of someone who will love and care for her, no matter how wealthy or poor they may be. Hitty’s views and attitudes toward the world reflect that of a 19th century New Englander, and the sequences involving the island tribe and the Indian snake charmer are not exactly the most enlightened – she regards “heathens” and “savages” with the same condescension, distaste and fear as her young mistress. Thankfully her view of the poor African-American family who fish her out of the Mississippi is warmer, as she is grateful to be loved by a little girl again and appreciates her new home, though it be rough and spare.

Hitty is an interesting addition to the genre of ‘toy adventurer’ novels. Her long life covers a lot of American history, from whaling ships to automobiles, and at the end of the book the sight of an airplane in the sky fills her with wonder. As old as it is, this novel has aged pretty well – the language is not too outdated and the plot moves along in a lively, entertaining manner. Hitty’s spry, stoic reactions to the outrageous situations she finds herself in will charm readers young and old. My copy had illustrations by the wonderful illustrator Dorothy Lathrop, who also illustrated the Greenaway Medal-winning Animals of the Bible (click this link to see examples). Some of her Hitty illustrations are included below.

P.S. In 1999 children’s author Rosemary Wells and illustrator Susan Jeffers produced a storybook version of Hitty’s story, Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, in which Wells rewrote the story for more modern audiences, removing references to “heathens” and “savages” for example, and adding a few episodes of her own invention. I’m afraid I have not seen this version, but I gather the story differs significantly from the original.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.