Thursday, April 25, 2019

Book Review: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field (1929)

Hitty, the title character of this 1930 Newbery Medal winning novel, is a doll made of mountain-ash wood who lives in the present day (1929) in a Maine antique shop. Because she has access to pen and paper, Hitty has decided to write her memoirs, which trace the first one hundred years of her life story. Hitty starts out living with a young girl named Phoebe Preble and survives several harrowing adventures under her care, before being lost and bouncing from owner to owner down through the decades. As Hitty moves around from place to place, she witnesses changes in technology and transportation, clothing and customs, resulting in a unique perspective on history.

I had planned to read this book on my own, but then took a chance that my five-year-old daughter might enjoy it and read it aloud to her instead. Though some things undoubtedly went over her head, it wound up being a good idea to share the book with her, as she became immediately invested in Hitty's adventures, and as a result, received some great insights into life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is also young enough that some of the predictable and coincidental elements of the plot that drove me crazy with their unlikelihood were genuine surprises for her.

The writing in the novel is strong, and distinctive, and for the most part I thought it was a worthwhile story. I was a little surprised to come across the phrase "making love" during a scene late in the book, even though it only referred to kissing, and though I didn't censor that line (I make it a point to always read an author's words as written), I did quickly gloss over it so I didn't have to explain it. My daughter didn't seem to notice and has yet to ask me, so it wasn't a big deal for us, but I think it would have been helpful to know that was coming. There are also some sections of the book that contemporary values would deem inappropriate with regards to racial stereotypes. I don't condemn books for being products of their time, and I mostly just made a few editorial comments to explain how times have changed and kept moving through the story.

Hitty is a real doll, and there is a lot of information on this website to enrich the reading experience after finishing the book, including photos. My daughter didn't seem that impressed, as I think the Hitty of her imagination looms larger than any doll of the real world ever could, but I found it interesting to learn some of the real-life influences that contributed to Field's writing of the book.

What does not enrich the reading experience quite as much (or at all) is Rosemary Wells's retelling of this book, published as Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years in 1999. Though Wells claims in her "Note to the Reader" to have loved this book as a child, she also expresses concern about how infrequently it is read, and seems to believe that the way to reach a wider audience is to rewrite the book, editing out much of the original plot and adding in a whole new storyline of her own. She likens this process to "weeding a beautiful garden" but from what I can tell in my copy of this book (purchased before we knew better), it looks like she mostly just trampled the life out of it. Reader, beware.

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