Wednesday, 13 April 2016
Years ago when the movie The Red Violin came out, I read a review of it in which the reviewer complained that an inanimate object doesn't inspire much interest or emotional investment. When, much later, I saw the movie, I disagreed. Following the titular red violin through four century chain of custody was very interesting and involving. But then I'm the sort of person who not only likes old things and is careful to preserve them but also sometimes wonders what their history has been and where they might end up. I'm the happy owner of a number of pieces of furniture that I found on someone's curb, brought home, and repaired and repainted/reupholstered/refinished. Where have these pieces been and what would their former owners say if they could see them now? ("Kick themselves for throwing them out," my friends assure me.) What would my great-grandmother have said if she could have foreseen when she bought her set of kitchen chairs circa 1900 that they would be sitting in her single, childless, and yoga-panted great-granddaughter's dining room in 2016? My guess is that Great Grandma would have found other aspects of my life circumstances more startling (starting with the yoga pants), but those chairs are as good a common thread as any if one were to craft a jointed narrative about the two of us.
This is all to say that though the Newbery winner for 1930, Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, which is the story of a little wooden doll's first century of existence, has a number of online reader reviews which criticize it for being boring, I liked it. Hitty, a little doll carved from mountain ash in early nineteenth-century Maine, relates her adventures to us from her home in an antique shop in the late twenties. She had much more interesting experiences than my dining room chairs have probably had, in no small part because she's portable and lends herself much more easily to anthropomorphism. Hitty is, as one might expect of a doll of her early Victorian origin and many years of fraught existence, a prim and pragmatic character, though she isn't without her share of vanity as well as a liking for finery. Her tale begins with her travels in the care of the little daughter of a sea captain. After a shipwreck, she experiences life as "god to a tribe of savages" on an unnamed south sea island, and after being lost in India, as the tool of a an Indian snake charmer. Then she passes through the lives of missionaries, Philadelphia Quakers, a fashionable, wealthy New York family, and a poor, overworked, and tenement-dwelling New York family. She attends a Patti concert, has her daguerreotype taken, meets John Greenleaf Whittier and becomes the subject of one of his poems, and later meets Charles Dickens, though Dickens, less inspired by the sight of her plain, serene face, merely picks Hitty up off the floor where she has fallen and hands her back to her young custodian. Hitty becomes a prop for an artist who painted children's portraits, is dressed in an exquisite lace bridal gown and displayed in an Exposition, lives with a sharecropping family, and finally suffers the indignity of being traded for a painted soap dish and made into a pincushion before she ultimately achieves the status of an antique and passes into the hands of doll collectors and antique dealers. There are also times when the Hitty spends an undefined number of years abandoned in, respectively, an attic, a hayloft, and a dead letter office. I'm inclined to think the author used these intervals to keep the book a publishable length.
Besides The Red Violin, this book reminded me of another episodic movie called Being Human, in which Robin Williams plays a recurring character named Hector who appears in a variety of historical scenarios ranging from Roman times to the present day, and in each vignette he strives to survive, to protect and care for those he loves -- and to find shoes that fit. This book has a similar style and themes, and it isn't at all a bad way for a child to learn about the history of American childhood. The book presents us with such a wide variety of family dynamics, material circumstances, and child training philosophies, all playing out over a long time period, and a certain universality of childhood experience ties it all together. Every little girl who called Hitty hers chafes against the parental restrictions and material circumstances of her life, something all children can relate to. I even found something a little subversive in the fact that Hitty has some of her most interesting adventures because her current young mistress her did something she wasn't supposed to do. Don't those stolen moments of freedom often become some of the most important and enjoyable of an adult's childhood memories?
As is to be expected from a book over eighty years old, there are aspects of the book that have not dated well. I can only hope that Hitty learns less offensive ways of describing people who were other than American and white in her second century (the sharecropping family's dialogue was especially horrendous, all "gwines" and "dats"), and her classist attitude towards the poorer families she lives in is also quite problematic. Hitty spends considerably more verbiage detailing her life among the wealthy than the poor, and seems to regard life among the white and the at least comfortably well off as being her proper place in life and the only sphere in which she can be contented, while life among other kinds of people is merely a mishap to be passed over as quickly as possible. The little girls who own her are also described and assessed in terms of typically Victorian feminine virtues: their gentleness and good temper (or otherwise), and their sewing ability and industry. But then, again, this book only covers Hitty's first century. Perhaps someone will write a sequel covering Hitty's next one hundred years in which she belongs to a diverse selection of children -- boys and girls -- who are more fully realized, and in which Hitty wears stylish flapper outfits, the New Look, poodle skirts, groovy paisleys, dresses for success, grunge, etc.