VERDICT: Treasure, mostly
Laurinda’s Rating: 3
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years is an episodic look at a doll’s first hundred years of “life”. Hitty, short for Mehitabel, begins life as a chunk of magic mountain ash carved by a peddler for a young Maine girl. Many adventures ensue. Hitty is picked up by crows, lost overboard when a whaling vessel catches alight, worshiped by Pacific Islanders as an idol, made assistant snake charmer, chucked into the Mississippi, and sold at several auctions. The story is written from the doll’s perspective and provides a straightforward narration of Hitty’s wide travels. The pacing is excellent, one adventure after another. It’s a refreshing change of pace from many of the earlier Newbery Medal books, which focused heavily on description to the detriment of actual plot development.
That said, Hitty rated 3 stars for a reason. The author’s choice of historic periods in which to place Hitty is extremely episodic. It really feels like she picked either her own favorite periods or tried to cram as much ‘diversity’ into the story as possible. The setting shifts between various parts of the United States, India, and the Pacific. We see the Early Republic, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the advent of automobiles. Hitty’s owners include Quakers, spoiled New York brats, an African-American former slave, a seamstress, an artists, and others. Because of this structural choice, no one chapter – story of an owner – is particularly well developed. I’m left wanting a deeper narrative of the people who owned Hitty, which Hitty, once she moves on to a different location is no longer able to provide.
Like the 20s books, the portrayal of the “Other” is also problematic. While less explicitly racist than some of the 1920s selections, the language used to describe any non WASP person is very much of its era. Hitty comes complete with bad “dialect” written in German, Irish, and African-American accents. There are also descriptions that emphasize commonly caricaturized traits of minority groups, like the gleaming white teeth, tight braids, and extreme religiosity in African Americans. The Irish family is poor, slovenly dressed, and violent. So on and so forth. The author mitigates some of this by showing a variety of interactions between characters of different groups, but Hitty is still very much a book of its time.
On a side note, the depictions of fashion in the book are detailed, so if you’re in to costuming and period garments, it’s a fun read. As a knitter, I definitely appreciate how much time Mrs. Preble, of Hitty’s original family, put into those 12 pairs of socks she sent along with her sea captain husband and the depth of effort to creating a realistic wardrobe for a doll. The illustrations also show Hitty’s various clothes, though, fair warning, some of the pictures are quite cheesy.
In general, I’m fairly neutral on this book. While I wouldn’t read it again, it would be a cute read for children, particularly ones attached to their dolls and/or imaginary friends. Hitty the doll has a strong voice, and there is sufficient action to engage even those with short attention spans. Because the chapters are pretty much discrete, it would also be perfect for bedtime reading – one chapter a night or whatever you can fit in before you fall asleep.