Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hitty (aka Mehitabel)

I didn't expect to like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field. A story about a doll? A book that is commonly referred to as dated and "not politically correct"? It sounded both ho hum and distasteful.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Although there definitely are some rather outdated parts in Hitty, as well as a few unfortunate stereotypes, these passages were not as bad as I feared. I thought that the rest of the story was an unusually charming, occasionally exciting, and truly interesting look at American history and "the good old days".

Hitty's story begins sometime before 1830 in the great "State of Maine" (as it is often referred to in Hitty), where she is carved out of mountain-ash wood by an Irish peddler. She is given to young Phoebe Preble (and fans can read more about the Preble family here), and accompanies Phoebe and her parents on a whaling expedition to the South Pacific, where mutiny, shipwreck, a desert island, "savages", an exciting rescue, and "a dirty old snake-charmer" of India (p. 92, also described as a heathen Hindoo) are encountered. And this is just in the first half of the book. That's a fair amount of action for a small wooden doll.

The not-so-PC passages are mostly from some of the parts described above, such as when the natives on the unnamed island are repeatedly described as childish, flamboyant, and possibly cannibals, who take Hitty to be an idol. When Hitty is lost in India, she describes a "babble of strange voices uttering heathenish gibberish" (p. 85). Later in the book, southern Black Americans are described as dirt poor but exceptionally musical, and then Hitty goes on meet "a noisy, unattractive lot of young men and women whose clothes shocked me by their tightness and lack of modesty" (p. 189).

Hitty's perspective is basically that of a rather old-fashioned, upper-middle-class white lady of the 1930's, so these comments are not particularly surprising. I think that the outdated passages are worth discussing*, especially with your kids, but I don't think it should lead readers to condemn the rest of the book when there is so much more to recommend it. Quakers, social class, the Civil War, theft, fashion, growing old, children's unthinking cruelty, and religion - all are touched upon, usually very graciously - in the second half of Hitty's memoir.

Plus, Rachel Field introduced me to the word "wadgetty", a regional term from Massachusetts and Nantucket (which means fidgety) that is used repeatedly and to great effect in Hitty. Although I was shocked to find that wadgetty isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was fun to discover that H.L. Mencken defined it in 1948.

Dorothy P. Lathrop's gorgeous artwork adds a whole new dimension to the story. The original cover (shown above) isn't bad, but I have to admit that I like the new cover, a colored version of the illustration on pg. 13, even more.

Which leads me to the latest edition of Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (and no, it's not a sequel, though like Peter D. Sieruta, I wouldn't be surprised to read about the publication of Hitty: Her Second Hundred Years).

In 1999, a new book entitled Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years was written (or adapted, with substantial abridging and some entirely new adventures) by Rosemary Wells, and lavishly illustrated by Susan Jeffers. A discussion on goodreads.com led me to this interesting article in the New York Times Book section: Children's Books: The Name is the Same.

Boy, people are not happy when you mess with their beloved classics, and there are apparently a good number of Hitty fans out there - see Hitty Preble, presented by the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society; Hitty.org - The Hitty Research Pages; or HittyGirls, to begin with. I've never seen so much discussion of a character from a classic Newbery book, or one with as many related eBay auctions. I hope all of this encourages people (including kids) to read the original Hitty before passing it by as hopelessly outdated and politically incorrect.

*And not just the passages on race. For instance, when Phoebe's father, the captain of a whaling ship, says that if he strikes it lucky on his next voyage, he might "bring back six or seven hundred barrels of sperm" (p. 34), you probably want to explain to your children that Captain Dan'l is referring to oil made from sperm whale blubber.

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