On Saturday, in Maine, I rode my bicycle the mile and a half to the very comfortable Northeast Harbor Library, which contains well-stocked “Maine” and “Garden” rooms; it’s currently showcasing a collection of antique “woolies,” folk-art embroideries made by extremely secure nineteenth-century sailors. Patrons who wish to memorialize their visit may buy “postal cards,” which are subcategorized accurately under such headings as “Circulation Area” and “Reference Desk.” I bought six for a dollar.
It is always awkward to be the only adult in the children’s room, and repetition does not make it any easier. But I went down the hall, past the mat where very young children have story time. I took a left at an enormous stuffed mouse and ran my finger along the “F” shelf in chapter books until I came upon my quarry: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years.
I knew they would have it, not just because it won the Newbery in 1930 and is considered a classic, but because it is one of the great Maine children’s books. Hitty is an imagined history of a small doll carved from a piece of mountain ash—inspired by a real doll that its author, Rachel Field, found in a New York City antiques shop—which takes its heroine around the globe via whaling vessel and Missisippi river boat, and in the custody of many different children. But Hitty is born in Maine, specifically on Cranberry Island, some two nautical miles from the library itself. In the course of her travels, she bears witness to the events of the nineteenth century, all of which she relates with serene pragmatism, in the manner of a doll Forrest Gump.
That evening, as it happened, we were to travel by motorboat to Cranberry Island. I did not know with whom, or when—in the way of guests, or dolls, I had little agency in such matters—but I was secretly excited to know I’d be near the actual Preble House, where Hitty was “born,” and where, today, you can buy a flat, wooden Hitty doll that is “slept” one night in the historic home before being sold. If you want to visit the genuine article, you can see her in Stockbridge; if you covet a Hitty of your own, their are craftspeople all over the country carving facsimiles; and if you want to compare Hitty’s journey to that of Odysseus, well, you can do that, too.
What is it that so appeals to readers about the book? It’s clearly written, the pictures are great, the adventures slip along. Even so, it’s an unusual children’s book. Of course, Hitty is passive—a point that struck me, as an adult, in ways it never did as a child. She is carried by crows, dropped, chewed by cats, left under a church pew, stuffed in a horsehair sofa for ten years, dragged through the mud. Some owners are kind, others careless. All this she takes in stride. There’s something deeply comforting in this. Hitty is more than a reliable narrator; she’s a caretaker. She outlives all the children who play with her; that you can know this, as a child, and not be troubled by it is a testament to the author’s skill, I think.
I have always wanted to go to Cranberry and see the Preble House. That boat ride, to a bustling restaurant on a dock, may be as close as I will ever get. I looked for it as we approached the harbor—I’d looked up its coordinates before we left—but I don’t think I saw it. I ached to be so close. But a part of me was glad to have the decision taken out of my hands.