I have been meaning to read Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929) by Rachel Field (illustrated wonderfully in what I assume is pen and ink by Dorothy P. Lathrop) for a rather long time. Several years ago my mother bought me a reproduction Hitty doll by Robert Raikes (big deal carver of dolls and bears though he no longer seems to be making Hitty dolls). His Hitty is shown in the picture at left.
After buying the doll, and doing a bit of research, we found an edition of Field’s novel with the original 1929 text and illustrations. There is another, newer, edition with updated text by Rosemary Wells and illustrations by Susan Jeffers. The newer book came out, I believe, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Field’s original novel. I never read this version, actually sending it back upon realizing it was an adaptation, but other reviewers’ outrage at the changes suggest I was right to do so. If you haven’t guessed already, Hitty fans are numerous and loyal.
Hitty, amazingly, was real. Hitty.org is but one site dedicated to chronicling the life and history of this amazing doll. The site includes this picture of a Daguerreotype actually mentioned in the novel as well as a variety of other interesting photos and well-researched facts:
As the subtitle suggests, Hitty is already a centenarian at the start of Field’s fictionalized account of her adventures. Safely ensconced in a New York antique store equipped with quill and paper, Hitty decides it is high time to begin setting her story down for posterity. What follows is a children’s novel that truly deserves the Newberry Medal it received in 1930 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
Hitty begins her life as a lucky piece of mountain-ash wood carried by an old peddler. In exchange for lodging during a particularly bad Maine winter, the Old Peddler decides to carve his piece of wood into a doll for the family’s seven-year-old child, Phoebe Preble. Hitty and Phoebe have their share of adventures during their time together. More, it might be argued, than one doll could manage (including a section that reads very much like part of Moby Dick geared to a much younger audience). But, as readers realize soon enough, Hitty is no ordinary doll. As the story progresses, Hitty passes through many hands and a variety of owners. Like most things, some owners prove better than others in the same way that certain events of Hitty’s life are more worthy of space in her memoirs than others.
When you realize that this book is from 1929, well before any other doll novels were published, it becomes clear that Hitty is something special because Field did it first. At first, I thought the novel might come off as dated since it was written so long ago. But I was happily proven wrong and found that the text stood up to my modern standards as well as Hitty’s chemise survives her first century. Many of the insights that Hitty expresses throughout the book remain very accurate to this day. Hitty’s calm demeanor and buoyant spirit also help to make this doll downright lovable.
Field’s prose is wonderful. Even though I knew Hitty was safe in the antique shop, each new peril left me fearing for Hitty and in a state of suspense until I found out if she had survived. The people that Hitty passes during the course of her first century are equally well-realized in the text. In terms of classic children’s literature (especially for a younger child), I can’t think of many better examples.
If, you want still more Hitty, you can check out Gail Wilson’s website. This very talented (and expensive) doll makers features her own version of Hitty available both ready-made and as a kit. Here are two examples: