Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field (1930)

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is narrated by the titular character, a doll carved from a piece of mountain ash wood by a peddler in Maine in the early 1800s. She recounts her adventures, which took her to the South Seas, India, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and sundry other places in the hands of a succession of owners, before finally arriving at an antique shop in New York City.

I can understand why people at the time enjoyed Hitty. It's several different adventure stories at once, with a protagonist that allows the action to shift from one place to another without the usual time constraints. If you're interested in a panorama of at least some parts of 1800s and early 1900s America, Hitty might well appeal to a 1930 version of you.

I would opine, however, that, even if we adjust our standards to "1920s and 30s kidlit," Hitty is...pretty racist, actually. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indians, and African Americans all come in for unflattering and exoticizing portrayals. The "dialect" conversations of the Black characters made me cringe, the descriptions of Bombay are all kinds of offensive, and although Hitty makes some attempt to show that the "Injuns" aren't really anything to be afraid of, that passage leaves many unpleasant statements unexamined. (For example, "[the Native Americans]'ve got baskets and things to sell, but he said you couldn't trust 'em round the corner.") But the South Seas section is the worst offender -- when the bone-in-the-nose islanders take Hitty and worship her as an idol, it's exactly as bad as you might fear.

Also, I have to say that I found Hitty a tiresome companion. She comes across to me as hopelessly judgmental, prone to abusing superlatives, and obsessed with her own appearance. I'd be tempted to shove her into the back of the horsehair couch too, if that's how she was going to act. There's some humor, I suppose, in a doll with all of the concerns and values of a rather unpleasant great-aunt, but a) I don't think it's intentional, and b) it's more or less impossible to sustain over 200 pages.

As much as I disliked Hitty -- and I'd rank it near the bottom of the Newbery winners I've read -- I don't have an opinion as to what should have won instead. Six Honor books were named, but I've never heard of them other than as titles on the list; I also can't think of any books left off the Newbery list that should have been chosen. It's hard for me to think of a modern reader I'd recommend Hitty to, however, unless you're a Newbery completist too.

4 comments:

  1. I think some books just don't have a place in the modern world - this sounds like one of them!

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  2. This one was a bit of a slog. I had it on pdf and read it between other books as time permited. It is really a bit unbelievable that it ever appealed to children but it is one of a few similar Newberys I have read. Still not as bad as Smoky the Cow Horse (shudder)

    As to being a completist. Of the 408 winners and honour books I have now read 405 of them!! Only 3 books to go. Luckily I work in a library and could access many on inter library loan or at our library. I have recently bought a copy of Phebe Faitchild her story but as this was the only book I couldn't get on inter library loan any where in the world I was more than happy to spend $100 on it.

    Now I move on to the Carnegie awards but this time I am limiting myself to the winners and not the short listed books (or heaven forbid the long list)

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    1. I can't believe you're that far along! You deserve some kind of medal yourself...

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    2. Hi Sam, I completely finished all of the winners and honor books a week or so ago. No more till next January. Now on to the Carnegie award of which i have read about the first decade of winners
      Prue from Australia

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