|Rumor has it that Rachel Field was so sure of the success of Hitty, Her First Hundred Years that she held a sort of auction among her publishers, to determine which one would produce the work.
The novel was undoubtedly enriched by Dorothy Lathrop’s imaginative illustrations, but its enduring popularity rests on Field’s knack for historical details, and her genius in bringing out Hitty’s calm personality during the many exciting adventures she experiences.
Perhaps Field was so sure of her work because she based it on threads and themes from well-loved classics. There are many parallels between Hitty’s adventures and the thrilling exploits of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. There is also an echo of Sindbad the Sailor’s second voyage from the 1001 Arabian Nights.
In Homer’s immortal tale, the hero, Odysseus (or in Roman terms, Ulysses) is born on the island of Ithaca. He sails from home under stress of circumstances — the Trojan War — and after Troy is conquered, and the war over, he starts to sail home, but experiences many strange and exotic adventures on land and sea, taking 20 years before finally reaching his native land.
In Rachel Field’s version, a tiny wooden doll named Mehitabel, or Hitty for short, substitutes for the Greek hero. We now know our heroine was also born on an island — Great Cranberry Island, Maine, the home of the Prebles. She also leaves home on a sea voyage when Captain Preble somewhat precipitously goes out whaling, with his wife acting as cook, and his whole family on board. Hitty, too, experiences many adventures, perhaps not so strange as those of Odysseus, but curiously, quite similar. For example, consider the following comparison table:
In Rachel Field’s Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, Hitty’s first home was with the Preble family in Maine, most likely on Great Cranberry Island. The Preble household included Captain and Mrs. Preble, Phoebe, Andy — and the old peddler, during Hitty’s first winter.
Captain and Mrs. Preble are always mentioned as Pheobe’s father and mother, but, curiously, never as Andy’s.
The status of Andy in the Preble household is somewhat ambiguous. The first time he is mentioned in the book, he is called “Andy the chore-boy.”
Indeed, when Andy forgets to take off the sleighbells from the harness, we read:
But Andy said a bell was a bell and he could n’t see what difference it made whether it was on a sleigh or in a church steeple.
This remark caused Phoebe’s mother to reprove him severely.
Now, why didn’t the author say “Andy’s mother” or “his mother” in the last sentence? Clearly, the awkward circumlocution is meant to imply that Mrs. Preble was not Andy’s mother.
Further, when the Prebles are stranded on the South Sea island, Captain Preble complains to his wife:
…I must say I can’t see why I had to lose my vessel an’ the biggest catch I ever made an’ when I had you ‘n’ Phoebe aboard all to once.
Notice the captain doesn’t mention Andy, though of course he was also present. This is a clear indication that Captain Preble was not Andy’s father.
And yet, Andy goes along with the family and participates in all their adventures. How can we explain this mystery?
The answer may lie in the archives of the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society’s Historical Museum. In their on-line Finding Aid — which lists the various items in the archival collection — you will find two possible explanations.
Item 616 in the archives is a report from the town’s Overseers of the Poor for the year 1867. William P. Preble was one of the three overseers. The report tells of the sad state of the Pung family. It seems that William Pung could not support his family, and they were starving. The town gave him money to buy food, and also looked for families willing to take in his three children, so they could have a better life.
Items 93 and 610 in the archives are Indenture Papers. You can read item 610. Actually it is only a draft, not the final signed document. As you can see, when a poor boy grew old enough to work, he might agree to live with a different family, the better to support him, to see to his schooling, and to teach him life skills to earn a living.
So it is probably a shrewd guess that Andy was not actually the son of Captain and Mrs. Preble, but was only staying with them, perhaps under indenture, because his own family was too poor to support him.