The 1930 Newbery Award Winner Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field follows a small wooden doll around the nineteenth century world as she is lost and found by an assortment of owners. The 5 inch doll Hitty begins her life when a wood-carver peddler takes refuge from a winter storm in Maine at a sea captain’s home and carves the small Mountain Ash doll for the young girl of the house, Phoebe Preble. She journeys with the Prebles from the meeting house and the wilds of Maine to the waters of the Indian Ocean on the ship the Diana-Kate. Hitty and the Prebles are ship-wrecked somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and Hitty is stolen by the island natives and made a local deity, before she’s rescued, only to be lost a short while later on the streets of India. Soon she’s found again, only to be whisked off back to the States, and every decade or so explores a new region and time of 19th century America.
What I liked. As someone who has a very deep childhood relationship with a stuffed animal (Her name is Bluebell, and she is a blue CareBear), I enjoyed the series of intimate child-doll relationships. Also, I liked how the book was a sort of domestic history of the United States centered on the travels of this little doll. Hitty has moments when it reminded me heavily of scenes from Laura Ingles Wilder, especially on children keeping the Sabbath, or going to church, or negotiating with mothers about appropriate dress and behavior in the 19th century. Hitty is the first main female character of the Newbery winners, and has by far the most female characters we’ve seen so far in all the other Newberies combined.
What was interesting. What I thought was particularly interesting was the little glimpse of 19th century American Missionary life. Once in India, Hitty spends a little time with a snake charmer before some American Missionaries buy her for their daughter, Thankful. Thankful, however, gets sick on the mission field and soon is sent to live permanently with her grandparents in Massachusetts, where Thankful is teased by the local girls until she abandons Hitty, hiding her at a party in a horse hair sofa. Hitty’s time in India with the missionaries is a short episode, but my great-great-grandparents were missionaries in Burma who also sent their children home (only instead of living with family, they spent time in orphanages), and Evan’s Master’s Thesis is about a 19th Century Missionary (Henry Jessup, who spent more than half a century in Syria). I was surprised to see that little cameo of 19th century mission work, and the way children experienced it. Author Rachel Field spent quite a bit of time having Hitty interact with various church settings from Quakers to Southern Black preachers.
What were some limitations. The main limitation of the book was that Hitty moved around so often (as the book went along, it seemed that the description of her time with each new owner got shorter) that character development and plot were difficult to develop. Especially at the end of the book when collectors of antiques and figurines were the main people who bought or found Hitty, the bonds between doll and owner were much less compelling than at the start of the book.
Why I think it’s a Newbery. Hitty, I think like the last three Newberies (Trumpeter of Krakow, GayNeck the Pigeon, & Smoky the Cowhorse) has a lot of the components of a really great novel, but with less character development and tight plot than mark my favorite children’s novels. These past four Newberies have reviews by people who absolutely love them, or remember loving them as children. Hitty goes on a lot of adventures: stranded in trees in a crow nest, forgotten under church pews, tossed about in storms on the open sea, surviving ship mutiny, ship wrecks, native islands, Indian bazars, railroad trips, steam boats, southern plantations, and lightning storms.
Similarity to other Newbery winners. Hitty has a similar feel to Smoky the Cowhorse in the sense that the main character is really exploring a whole milieu as they change hands. It also has a portion of the book in a rather exoticized setting (snake charmer’s doll!) which is a theme that is repeated throughout the early Newberies.
What it teaches me as a writer. Hitty reminded me a lot of the power of beloved objects in stories. Even when I tired of the barrage of Hitty’s new owners of, there is something about remembering my special own toys that kept my interest (and makes me love the Velveteen Rabbit or the ToyStory movies). The whole premise of Hitty is that we imbue, as children, our dolls and toys with so many emotions and find ourselves wondering about their experiences, that a doll telling her story is compelling.
Have you read Hitty, Her First Hundred Years? Do you have a special stuffed animal or story about stuffed animals coming to life?
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