A book review by Jonah Begone
Hitty: Her first hundred years by Rachel Field. Illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop.
207 pages, published by Macmillan Publishing Company, 1929. ISBN 0-02-734840-7
From 1966 to 1968 I had the world's worst fifth and sixth grade teacher. Her name was Miss Wilda Johnson, and out of a classroom full of students she seemed to select me for special punishment. Nearly every day I had to stay after class to discuss my "citizenship problems" with this dreary wretch. My problems usually consisted of something like "Wouldn't let neighbor see eraser" or "Staring at Diane," or "talking." (I have a composition book full of such affronts.) While it is true I was the class clown, it is also true that I certainly wasn't the eleven-year-old ogre she thought I was. I noticed that the girls in the class always seemed to escape punishment and reprimand, and years later I learned the woman was a lesbian; her anti-boy agenda was certainly clear to me. (Once, after I got into a fistfight for calling another boy a "brontosaurus," she told me that the next time this happened she "...hoped that he would beat me to a bloody pulp." I have never forgotten the unexpected and undeserved venom that accompanied those words, and the most fitting revenge I can imagine is to simply repeat those words on a global resource like the Internet, in this article.)
Anyway, thirty-plus years later it occurs to me that the only good thing the woman ever did for me was to introduce our class to the John Newbury medal books for children. Awarded annually since 1922 by the American Library Association, this medal is given to the book that represents "...the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" for that year. Each of us had to select one to read, and to later give a major book report upon. Looking over the display in the library, I selected The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, which was the 1923 winner. I loved that book, and later went on to read and own all of the books in the series. Many of these were over 300 pages long, so this represented a major effort on my part. The 1967 movie starring Rex Harrison was a significant disappointment to me; my Doctor Dolittle books now sit unread by the Begone family children, which is also a disappointment.
Casting about for another good Newbury book to read, I was intrigued by Hitty: Her first hundred years, by Rachel Field, despite the fact that this was clearly a book about a doll intended for girls. (I was always intellectually fearless and unfettered.) So, defying the opinions of the other boys in my class, I read it.
Hitty is a delightful book and highly recommended. The account - supposedly a memoir of the doll's own making - describes her creation out of charmed mountain-ash wood in the State of Maine sometime around 1830, and of her first owners, the Preble family. Mehitabel - called "Hitty" for short - has many adventures aboard ship, in India and other faraway places. She is later returned to America and spends time during the Civil War with a little Quaker girl in Philadelphia, where she hears war news from a Northern perspective. After the war, she is purchased by two spinsters in New Orleans, where she hears the Southern side of the story - a nice touch. Wearing bridal finery, Hitty is displayed at a Cotton Exposition, is stolen by an impulsive little girl and is flung away in a display of guilt and religious fear during a violent thunderstorm. She floats down the Mississippi in a grass basket, and is taken in by a poor black family. ("Dat mah chile," says the little girl, spotting her. There is no political correctness in this book, or in Doctor Dolittle, for that matter.)
Eventually, she is introduced to the word "antique," and realizes it applies to her. (We all get this realization sometime in our lives, if we are lucky…) Hitty closes her memoirs with a Scarlett O'Hara-like note of expectant and hopeful finality: "I feel that many more adventures are awaiting me… After all, what is a mere hundred years to a well-seasoned mountain-ash wood?" Indeed. May we all age as gracefully.
What has this book to do with reenacting? Well, it was the first time I got the idea that old things can have value and interest. Interestingly, there's a part in the book that describes how Americans' interest in old things have become a craze - I imagine this takes place sometime in the Twenties, which more or less corresponds with the rise of the preservation movement in this country. Certainly, it was well underway in the mid-Sixties when I read this book; my Mom and I used to enjoy rummaging around in antique stores on Saturdays. Anyway, the interest in old things awakened in me by Hitty led to an interest in genealogy and history, which eventually led to an interest in preservation and reenacting. This, of course, led to the articles I have written for the Camp Chase Gazette since 1987 and this web site and book review. So, Dear Reader, in a sense you have Miss Hitty to thank for Jonah Begone!
But don't hold that against her. If you have a daughter, introduce her to this charming book. If you have an intellectually fearless son, leave it around in view. And if there's still a part of you that can take joy in childish things, read it yourself.
Here's a letter I received from a reader on 7/31/00 in reference to this article:
I have several pages devoted to Hitty doll collecting including a photo of the original doll who inspired this book. This wonderful antique folk doll was found in an antique shop window by Rachel Field and Dorothy Lathrop and they both fell in love with Hitty (She had a piece of paper pinned to her slip with "Hitty" written in ink). They both started to wonder how many different things this old doll might have experienced in her very long life. Rachel eventually bought the doll and shipped it to Dorothy so she could draw the illustrations using Hitty as the model.
LOTZ STUDIO - wood dolls
PO Box 1308
Lacombe, LA 70445-1308
LOTZ DOLL PAGES (a non-commercial doll collecting, doll making, and wood doll resource).
One last note: If you liked the book Hitty, you might like the haunting film "The Red Violin." It's about a 17th C. craftsman and a violin he creates, and its travels through time to the present day - but this just scratches the surface of all this film contains. It has a marvelous narrative style, a gorgeous soundtrack and a clever, episodic screenplay. It is truly one of the best films I have ever seen. I would think this film would appeal to reenactors, who are interested in old things. (It is rated R for some nudity in a couple of sex scenes, which can be easily fast-forwarded through if this makes you fidget, as it does me.) Among the many timeless things this film considers - music, passion, life, death - is this question, posed by an admiring instrument appraiser: What do you do when the thing you most wanted, so perfect, just comes? In the case of this film, you relish it. - Jonah