Saturday, January 26, 2008
What a Doll!
Field, Rachel. 1929. Hitty: Her First Hundred Years.
The antique shop is very still now. Theobold and I have it all to ourselves, for the cuckoo clock was sold day before yesterday and Theobold has been so industrious of late there are no more mice to venture out from behind the woodwork. Theobold is the shop cat--the only thing in it is that is not for sale, which has made him rather overbearing at times. Not that I wish to be critical of him. We all have our little infirmaties and if it had not been for his I might not now be writing my memoirs. Still, infirmities are one thing, and claws are another, as I have reason to know.
Hitty, Her First Hundred Years won the Newbery award in 1930. Who is Hitty? Hitty is a doll. A wooden doll made from the ever-lucky mountain-ash wood. Her story begins when an Old Peddler--old peddlers are so rarely named in books--takes refuge with a family in Maine. Mrs. Preble is awaiting the return of her husband--who is a whaler--and she has the children to care for. One of her children is a young girl named Phoebe. (The other is a boy named Andy.) The Peddler takes refuge in the storm, but ends up staying quite a while with the family. At some point during his visit, he carves this doll--soon named Mehitabel--for the little girl. Phoebe's told she must sew clothes for the doll before she can be played with--and one of the items Phoebe makes is an undergarment--a chemise--with "Hitty" cross-stitched on it.
Hitty's adventures span the globe and span generations. Sometimes her change of locale is purposeful--when the Preble family takes her on a ship's voyage to the South Seas--and other times it is quite accidental--when Phoebe drops the doll in India and she is "discovered" by a wandering snake charmer. She has many different owners; she has many different adventures. Throughout it all, she tries to hold on to as much grace and dignity as she can. Which isn't always easy. (Like when she's made an idol in the South Seas.)
The book is illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop. The illustrations are black and white. And they are very likely the original illustrations for the book. Original art is important I know to preserving the feel of a book at times. (Like I would be monstrously upset if someone removed Garth Williams illustrations from the Little House books. Oh wait, somebody did. And it was wrong, wrong, wrong.) But when I see beautiful new editions of The Wind in the Willows or Alice in Wonderland or The Secret Garden. Editions with incredible illustrations. I can't help but wishing that Hitty will one day get the same treatment. My choice? Bagram Ibatoulline.
When I was reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, I thought. I bet this book must be like Hitty. I'd never read Hitty. It was just a hunch. An educated guess. A guess that turned out to be all too accurate. Hitty didn't start out unloved, mind you, and she was never nailed to a stake and used as a scarecrow. However, she did spend decades folded up in a horsehair sofa in an attic. The similarities are interesting.
Hitty, Her First Hundred Years was a good read for me. I enjoyed it. I thought it was charming in some places. Interesting in others. There were just a few sentences here and there that might be jarring to the modern reader. For example, early on in her life--turn of the nineteenth century--Hitty refers to Native Americans as 'Injuns'. Phoebe and Andy are out picking blackberries or blueberries or some sort of berry. They wander too far away and see Indians in the distance. Both get so frightened that they run away. In the chaos--the Indians never saw them or chased them--Phoebe drops her doll and later worries that the 'Injuns' might have taken her. And a few chapters later, when the Preble family is sailing--in a whaling ship--the South Seas. A storm leaves them stranded on an island with "savages."