Thursday, August 5, 2010
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field
Hitty, short for Mehitabel, is a small wooden doll carved by a peddler in rural Maine in the early 1800s for a small girl named Phoebe. We follow Hitty for, well, a hundred years, as she goes on adventures with her young mistresses and is eventually either lost or abandoned by each of them in turn. I'll tell you a little about each:
Phoebe, daughter of a whaling ship captain. It is due to Phoebe's cross-stitched "Hitty" on Hitty's chemise that the doll is able to keep her name through all her adventures. Most notably, Hitty accompanies Phoebe on a voyage on her father's ship, and we learn a lot about how the whaling business worked. One thing leads to another, and Hitty is dropped by a sleeping Phoebe onto a street in Bombay.
Thankful, daughter of missionaries in India. Hitty was picked up from the street by a snake charmer, who used her as part of his act until Thankful's parents happened to notice her, and thought she would be a good present for their little girl. They were essentially right; Thankful did love her. She got sick, though, and was sent back to live with her grandparents in Philadelphia, since "India is no place for a child". One thing leads to another, and Hitty is stuffed in a couch, where she remains for several years.
Clarissa, a young Philadelphian Quaker girl around the time of the Civil War. Clarissa's cousins discovered Hitty when they were playing on the couch in the attic. Hitty's life is more stable while she is living with Clarissa, and Hitty tells us that she is able to write her memoirs now because of the time she spent on Clarissa's desk at her little dame school. When Clarissa goes off to boarding school, Hitty is packed in a box with mothballs.
Isabella, daughter of a lawyer and his wife in New York City. Isabella is less well-developed as a character than Phoebe, Thankful, and Clarissa, but we do know that she is headstrong and spoiled, but a good-natured child in her way. One thing leads to another, and Hitty is stolen from Isabella by a pack of ruffians on New Years Day.
From here Hitty's life is fairly unstable, and I won't go into further details.
Reading this now, I was a little impressed with my 5th grade self for sticking with the book in the beginning. It picks up nicely for most of the middle, but it is hard to stay engaged with for the first couple of chapters (a long time spent under a church pew, and then a crow's nest, are described in painful detail), and toward the end of the book Hitty travels with an artist who paints her in still-life, two old ladies in New Orleans, an elderly lady who collects china animals, and finally the owner of an antique shop in New York. It's just less interesting. The book is also pretty un-PC in parts, like when the "natives" on a desert island are described, and the way the dialect of former plantation slaves is handled during the short time Hitty spends with a girl named "Car'line" there. I honestly had no recollection of this section of the book from my first reading of it - reading it now was truly reading it anew.
The descriptions of historic events are accurate as they go, though, if the perspective on some has changed since the book was published. For example, a modern reader might be surprised at how things like peeling the blubber off the whale and the "Nantucket Sleigh Ride" are glorified during Hitty's time with Phoebe, and the description of some immigrant tenement children is not at all kind. But we also hear about the Civil War from a Quaker perspective, the Fresh Air Fund (though not mentioned by its name, I'm pretty sure this is what was going on), and more everyday things like the sensation that a wonderful opera singer Adelina Patti caused in Philadelphia, and what it might have been like to meet Charles Dickens, as well as changes in fashion, schooling, and what were considered basic manners.
I think the appeal of this book would vary widely by child. I think it's safe to say that it's more a girls' book than a boys' book, and one for fairly patient girls at that. It probably helps if they like dolls, and can grasp that perspectives on some things have changed. But for that quiet, doll-liking, patient girl with perspective, it's a great book!
Note: I have found several websites devoted to Hitty, with recreations of scenes in the book, timelines, etc. It's worth a google if you're so inclined!