Newberys Read This Year: 13
Newberys Left for Goal: 2
Newberys Left for Total: 16
Book: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years* by Rachel Field
Book: Strawberry Girl* by Lois Lenski
Genre: Realistic Fiction
In my rota of alternating protagonists, I read these two books when I was due for a female main character. I made a connection between the girls I read about, so it seemed fitting to discuss the two together.
Hitty was the winner in 1930. The eponymous title character is actually a doll. She is made of mountain-ash wood (extremely sturdy, brings luck, and has power against witchcraft and evil) for little Phoebe Preble in early 19th century Maine. Hitty seems prone for adventures. While in Maine, she gets left behind in a church, snatched by a crow, and hidden in a tree. But that is nothing to what she experiences later. Among other things, she survives a boat sinking, becomes an object of worship for island natives, shares a basket with a snake (the accompanying illustration was far too life-like for my snake phobia), gets stuffed away in an attic, becomes a wedding gown model, goes overboard a ferry, and eventually becomes a collector’s item in an antique shop. Along the way she has several owners, some who cherish her, some who are indifferent to her, and some who are mean-spirited.
Sixteen years later, Strawberry took the prize. In this story, Birdie Boyer and her family are newcomers to the Florida backwoods around the turn of the 20th century. Birdie’s family are kind, loving, and friendly, but they bring progressive ideas their more unenlightened neighbors deride, fear, and eventually violently resist. Good triumphs over all, however, and in time the Boyers become welcome citizens in the community.
Two very different stories, two very different characters, but they do share a common trait. Both Hitty and Birdie may appear to be in traditional female roles, but both show that there is more to them under the surface. Hitty has great respect for propriety and enjoys the traditional feminine pursuits of sewing, nurturing, and homemaking. However, as the title implies, we follow Hitty’s journey for one hundred years, and along that journey we see her adapt with the changing times. Hitty always stays true to herself, but I got the feeling that she did not have an anachronistic spirit. If we were able to follow her journey into the 1920s, it is likely that she would be scandalized at flapper attire, but she would also likely support their right to vote. She’s hardly a radical, but I do think she would be open to progressive views.
At first glance, Birdie is simply a loving child who enjoys being a part of her family, helping out with the family farm. Like Hitty, we see her in traditional female roles of cooking, gardening, and taking care of her siblings. But we also see a girl who loves going to school in a community that does not entirely embrace education for anyone, let alone females. When the Boyers are bullied by Birdie’s classmate’s family in general and the classmate in particular, several members of the family, Birdie very much included, both stand up and reach out to him. We see Birdie break the traditional role of female bystander and instead be an active participant in her family’s life story.
So the trait that Hitty and Birdie share is feminism. This is a word that has gotten a bad rap over the years. Generally, when people think of the terms feminism and feminist they think strident, bombastic, loud-mouthed, radical crusader who is inspiration for the term “feminazi”. So not true. Wikipedia says that the goal of feminism is “to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women that are equal to those of men.” There are so many different ways to express and work toward this goal. In their quiet ways, both Hitty and Birdie show young female readers that they can be who they want to be, regardless of what traditional society expects of them. Sometimes a cause needs a Gloria Steinem or a Betty Friedan out there fighting and leading. Sometimes it needs a Hitty or a Birdie, peacefully modeling. I’m just glad that the Newbery committee knows this just as well as I do.