Friday, October 28, 2022

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field for the #1929Club

Title: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years
Author: Rachel Field (1894-1942)
Illustrator: Dorothy P. Lathrop
Publication: Macmillan, paperback, originally published in 1929
Genre: Children’s fiction/fantasy/historical fiction
Description: Hitty is a doll hand-carved from a small piece of mountain-ash wood by a peddler in early 19th century Maine, then given to Phoebe Preble, whose father is away at sea. Seven-year-old Phoebe is tasked with making clothes for her doll, which include a chemise embroidered with HITTY “so she can always be sure of her name.” This is fortunate because Hitty has a series of incredible adventures that take her to the South Seas, worshipped as a goddess by an indigenous tribe, claimed by an Indian snake-charmer, owned by missionaries, abandoned in Philadelphia, rescued by a Quaker girl, introduced to John Greenleaf Whittier, beautifully dressed by a seamstress in New York, dropped at the feet of Charles Dickens, lost in a haystack in Rhode Island, modeling for an artist, attending Mardi Gras, stolen from a Cotton Exposition, thrown into the Mississippi River, mailed to New York, turned into a pincushion, and given a home by a doll collector. After being misplaced in the country, she realizes she is back in Maine in the Prebles’ home although the family is long gone. Her final destination is an antique shop in New York, where she takes advantage of nearby ink and quill pen to write her memoir.

My Impression: Hitty is one of the books I found in my elementary school library, which had a fairly impressive collection. I did not know until much later that Field was the first woman to win the Newbery Award but I assume I picked it up because I liked books about dolls. Hitty is a great observer of human nature (especially of spoiled children) but has no special powers and cannot communicate with her owners. She is sturdy rather than glamorous, but that solid mountain-ash wood has kept her from falling apart during her adventures. It is the combination of her engaging personality and the detailed narrative of her travels that makes this book such a winner.
My favorite sections of the book involve Hitty’s various owners making clothes for her, either with clumsy or deft fingers. In New Orleans, two elderly ladies “in an old house in the French quarter with a courtyard full of greenery and an iron balcony that hung over the narrow cobbled street” decided to dress Hitty in the style of their younger days for a Cotton Exposition. They reverently use a handkerchief woven from cotton from their great-great-grandfather’s estate embroidered by his wife long ago. Because the young men in their lives died in the Civil War, they never carried the handkerchief as brides, but decide this special cotton will make a wedding dress for Hitty:
Such measuring and planning and fitting as went on before scissors were put to the heirloom. The sisters poured over old fashion books and cut tiny paper patterns, so that I should do them credit and not a scrap of the precious piece be wasted. There were ruffled petticoats to be made first from other muslin, and these must have hems and feather-stitching so microscopic . . . After much consultation, they decided to leave me my chemise, because they quoted an old motto that said every bride should wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” They washed and bleached it with their own hands, however, and wondered who put the cross-stich letters on.
Hitty is the hit of the show and is enjoying the admiration when a little girl sees and steals her, setting her off on yet another adventure. Later, she is rescued by an old lady to join her many old dolls:
I became the favorite of all her collection. She kept me in a little old yellow rocker on her own writing desk and always showed me to visitors as her most prized doll. Her only regret was that she knew nothing of my history. She mourned this often and it made me wish more than ever that I had some way of telling her about myself.
Doll stories usually involve their adventures but perhaps are not considered fantasy unless the dolls start talking. They can be the central character of the story or belong to one. Until she has pen and ink, Hitty cannot communicate, unlike the characters in Five Dolls in a House or Knight’s Castle, for example, although sometimes she can move her legs. When she is lost or seized, she is unable to call for help but she continues her quirky observations. However, there is no doubt she is the star of the story. As a writer, Field had a strong dramatic sense and provided Hitty with many cliffhangers. She attended Radcliffe College (my own alma mater, which has three boxes of her papers) then moved to New York where she worked initially as a writer for a film company. In addition to Hitty, she wrote 21 plays, several books of poetry, 14 children's books and 6 adult novels. All This and Heaven Too was a bestseller and became a movie in 1940 starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. Hitty was inspired by a doll that Field found in an antique shop in New York, just as the book places her at its conclusion, ready for another hundred years of adventures.
I read this for the 1929 Club, hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and for the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.

Source: Personal copy


Joy Weese Moll said...

Fun! I missed this one as a child but I think I would have adored it.

k said...

How fascinating! I'd never heard of book or author, but I do know the Bette Davis film so am impressed!

Lory said...

Interesting perspective on history! And a great choice for the Club.

CLM said...

This is really a book that appeals to adults even more than children because of the history and the painstaking care taken to maintain Hitty. There are other doll books where the doll comes to life whereas her owners do not know Hitty is sentient; however, at least she does communicate to the reader!

Katrina said...

I read and enjoyed this one fairly recently, but I hadn't realised that Field had written so many other books, I must see what I can find online. Thanks.

TracyK said...

This does sound very interesting and I will have to follow up and find a copy. I did see this reviewed at Pining for the West and meant to get a copy then, but haven't yet.

Cathy said...

I still have my childhood copy, complete with its dust jacket. I loved that book! I had a doll that looked a lot like Hitty, only "Martha" had a china head, hands, and feet. My grandmother made her for me as well as her wardrobe.