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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-08-19 12:44 am

Newbery Medal: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field)

So. Hitty.

This is a really hard book for me to liveblog. It "seem[s] a bit above my likes and dislikes", to quote JRR Tolkien. It's... it's Literature, I guess, in a way that the other Newberys so far have not been: I can interrogate the text all I want, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what I or anyone else thinks of it. The book stands alone.

Buuut it's still a Newbery, so I have to try. *sigh* HERE GOES.

* "This book is dedicated to THE STATE OF MAINE and ABBIE EVANS". ...I'm sure Abbie was flattered. ;-)

* I don't usually do this, but because of the way the exposition is handled, it'll probably be easier on everyone if I explain a little bit up front. Hitty: Her First Hundred Years is the fictional "memoir" of a wooden doll, 6 inches (15cm) tall or thereabouts, who was carved by a peddler in Maine in the year 1829 or a little before. The book follows her "life" over the hundred years from her carving to the time when she winds up in an antique shop in New York City in 1929, the year the book was published.

* The story opens in the antique shop, where Hitty has decided to write her memoirs, since she is taken out of the shop window at nights and placed on the shop-owner's desk for safekeeping. Within the world of the story, we are meant to assume that the shopowner, Miss Hunter, finds a few more pages of Hitty's memoirs on the desk each morning and eventually decides to have them published.

* The research done by the book's real-life author, Rachel Field, is really good. Really good. Hitty writes in the first person, in the style she would have learned in 1830s New England, complete with "was n't" (with the space) for "wasn't" and such other slightly old-fashioned quirks. It's a completely immersive experience.

* After reminiscing a little bit about various adventures we'll hear of in more depth later on, Hitty starts at the beginning. She was carved sometime in the 1820s, in Maine, for a little girl named Phoebe Preble, by an Irish peddler referred to only as "the Old Peddler". The Old Peddler had been caught in a bad snowstorm, and the Preble family sheltered him over the winter in return for his help with the farm chores. In thanks, he carved Hitty for the daughter of the family.

* Hitty explains that she was carved from mountain-ash wood which the Old Peddler had carried all the way from Ireland. This type of wood is supposed to bring good luck, and throughout the book, Hitty will credit her mountain-ash composition with the good things that happen to her.

* For the purposes of the book, Hitty becomes "alive" when her face is painted, the last step in the carving. She is given a "pleasant expression", to which she will also refer several times throughout the book.

* Phoebe has to sew Hitty a full set of clothes before playing with her. Hitty's name is originally "Mehitabel", a name from the Hebrew Bible, but this is quickly shortened to "Hitty". The name "Hitty" is embroidered in red cross-stitch on Hitty's cotton chemise.

...okay, you know what? I give up. This book has defeated me. It took me forty minutes to write the section above, and that covers four pages. It'd take me most of a forty-hour work week to finish the book at that rate. I'm not enjoying it enough to do that.

So I'll just run through a quick chapter-by-chapter summary of the plot here, with some Thoughts where appropriate.

* Chapter 1: Hitty is carved and clothed. Phoebe sneaks Hitty to church in her muff and accidentally loses her there. Later she is retrieved. We learn that Hitty consists of a body-and-head piece, two legs fastened on opposite ends of the same transverse peg which she can move together but not separately, and two arms ditto ditto. Unlike "Raggedy Ann" and similar doll stories, Hitty does not magically gain more ability to move around when humans are not watching her... except for the dexterity required to write her memoirs, which I think we can forgive her in service of the story. ;-)

* Chapter 2: It is summer. Hitty is lost in a raspberry patch and taken by a crow to a nest in the tall pine tree in the Prebles' front yard. Hitty manages to tumble out of the crow nest, but snags her dress on one of the pine branches and dangles there until the Prebles' semi-adopted "chore-boy", Andy, spots her. The family retrieves her again. This chapter marks the first of several appearances made by non-white characters in the book: Phoebe leaves Hitty in the raspberry patch because Andy has been telling her lurid rumors of "Injuns" [sic] in the neighborhood, and when some Native women turn up to pick raspberries in the same patch, the children run away in fear. Hitty observes the Native women and decides they look "very fat and kind, though rather brown and somewhat untidy as to hair". -- which is really Hitty in a nutshell: a prim character who assesses everyone by her own peculiarly New England standards but who starts from a position of open-minded curiosity rather than prejudice.

(I note that Hitty's narration does use the term "squaws" for the Native women. Many First Nations people consider "squaw" a derogatory word, though some favor reclaiming it, since it is a legitimate form of the word that means "woman" in the widely spoken Algonkian family of Native American languages. As a white person, I'm not going to weigh in on the wider question of whether "squaw" should be reclaimed or not. But, I am going to defend Rachel Field's use of it here, for these two related reasons: the style of the book's first-person narration calls for Hitty to use words that would have been current in early-19th-century New England, e.g. "squaw" rather than "First Nations woman", and the Native women who appear are stated to belong to the Passamaquoddy nation -- that is, they would have spoken an Algonkian language, so it's a word they would have used for themselves, rather than a term that Hitty is joining with the white incomers in inappropriately applying to them. ...this may be nitpicking. As usual, I invite anybody with a different perspective to call me out on the matter.)

* Chapter 3: Because of plotty reasons, when Phoebe's father Captain Preble, the owner and captain of a whaling ship, leaves on his latest voyage, the rest of the family comes along with him, and Phoebe brings Hitty. Chapter 3 covers the Plotty Reasons and the preparations up to the time they go aboard the ship.

* Chapter 4: Tells of the first part of the whaling voyage, which goes well as far as the Pacific, when they hit a spell of bad weather and lose part of the mainmast. (Incidentally, Charles Boardman Hawes could learn something from Rachel Field: the writing of the storm and the loss of the mainmast is extremely well researched, with no inaccuracies I can spot.) At the end of the chapter, we learn that the first mate of the ship, a man called "Patch" whom Hitty has "never liked", deems Mrs Preble and Phoebe to be "bad luck" - this was a common superstition among 18th-century American and British sailors, that a woman on board would bring a voyage bad luck. Patch is trying to stir up ill-feeling among the crew about Captain Preble's perceived high-handedness in risking bad luck for the whole crew by bringing his family along on the trip.

* Chapter 5: Some whaling is done. Patch continues to stir up ill-will among the sailors. Eventually the ship happens to catch fire, and after a quarrel, Captain Preble sends away Patch and his contingent in the ship's boats, keeping only one boat for himself, his family, and his small contingent of loyal sailors. Captain Preble attempts to sail the burning ship toward a set of islands marked on his map. When the Prebles et alia finally leave the ship, Hitty is forgotten on deck, packed in Phoebe's basket. Just before Hitty would catch fire, the ship rolls over and Hitty is flung clear.

* Chapter 6: Hitty floats, by a... rather plotty stroke of luck, to the same uninhabited small island on which the Prebles eventually land, and is found again by them. The group sets up housekeeping on the island. After some time, a large group of native Polynesians visit the island; the Prebles fear the natives will kill and eat them, and when the chief native demands Hitty as a hostage of sorts, Phoebe is made to give her up. (The Prebles and their group exposit in discussion that the natives probably consider Hitty an idol or good-luck charm, and that the natives probably believe the Prebles will not attack them without Hitty's supporting presence. I don't know how closely this relates to any actual Polynesian belief system or habit of behavior.)

* Chapter 7: The Polynesians set Hitty up as an idol in a small shrine in the jungle, further inland on the same island where the Prebles are still camped. Most of Hitty's clothes are removed, but her chemise is left on; Hitty attributes this to the name "Hitty" stitched on it, which she asserts that the natives treat as "some magic sign or spell". I find this rather dubious, since no Polynesian language is known to have had any form of writing before white missionaries began inventing ways to write down Christian Bible translations in the native languages, and the only such Bible translation which would have existed at the time of this chapter is the Hawaiian one, of which only the four Gospels were published by 1828... but I suppose it is possible that any contact with white traders or missionaries could have resulted in a group of native Polynesians acquiring this kind of mystical respect for the written word. Possible, if not probable. :S

Anyway, the Prebles et alia eventually leave the island, and Andy steals Hitty from the jungle shrine to take with them. The Prebles sail their small boat near to a trading ship and are rescued.

* Chapter 8: This is the chapter where the type of book this seems to be changes abruptly. Up till now, every time Hitty has been separated from Phoebe, they're miraculously reunited. In this chapter, though, the Prebles go to India on the trading-ship which rescued them, and Phoebe drops Hitty in the street and never finds her again. From that point, Hitty never returns to a former owner once she is lost, and we never hear again what became of Phoebe or her family.

([personal profile] bookblather and I both read this book at a young age, and both agree that we found this sudden shift in tone very traumatic. Reading it as an adult, I have to wonder, though, if this very shift might be part of the reason Hitty was the first female-authored book to win a Newbery? Seven chapters, about forty percent of the book, are spent establishing it as this... rather fluffy little story about a girl and her doll, having adventures but always being reunited through circumstance. It's well-researched but it's nothing special for the era. Then, bam! Realism. Hitty starts getting shuffled around among different owners who keep her for about a chapter each, and who act in a great many different ways, not just the standard "little girl loves her doll" style that Phoebe does. I think that twist - setting up the expectation that Hitty will always find Phoebe again, and then subverting it - may be a big part of the book's impact, and of the reason that the librarians on the Newbery committee in 1930 said to each other, "this is Literature".)

So anyway, after Hitty is lost, she's found by an Indian snake charmer who uses her as a prop in his act. One day a missionary couple buy Hitty from him for their young daughter, Little Thankful. There's some rather uncomfortable but historically accurate discussion about how Hitty is seen as appropriate for Thankful specifically because she is "not an Indian doll" and has an "honest American face"; the missionaries also wonder "how that dirty old snake-charmer ever got his hands on her". :P Like I say, it's accurate, but I am sort of judging Rachel Field's choice to tell this particular story, and in the particular way that would call for some of these remarks. Juuust a tad.

* Chapter 9: Hitty spends two years with Thankful, which are passed over quickly. Eventually, Thankful has a serious fever, and the missionaries decide she should return to America to stay with her extended family. Thankful accordingly goes, and takes Hitty with her. They arrive in Philadelphia, and the next day, they go to a birthday-party held at the house of a friend of Thankful's grandmother. At the party, the other girls mock Thankful's unstylish appearance and call Hitty "ugly" and other insulting things. Before leaving, Thankful jams Hitty deep into a crevice of the sofa on which all the girls' dolls have been placed during the party.

* Chapter 10: We don't know how long Hitty was with the snake charmer or how long she spent inside the sofa, but this chapter most likely takes place in 1862. Hitty is found inside the sofa and given to a young cousin of the family which held the party. This cousin is a Quaker, named Clarissa Pryce, and it is during her dame-school lessons that Hitty learns to write. The main event of the chapter is that Adelina Patti, the famous young opera singer, is singing in Philadelphia. A young German boy whom Clarissa has befriended is the nephew of a flautist in the orchestra, and takes Clarissa and Hitty with him to stand in the wings and hear Patti sing. Clarissa is swept out of the wings onto the stage when the crowd shoves up close to Patti after the end of the show, and someone even lifts her up onto the small platform where Patti stands. Patti shakes Clarissa's hand, then is carried off by the crowd, and Clarissa and Hitty are jostled around and nearly trampled, till the orchestra conductor - who was informed by the flautist that the children would be there - rescues them and sends them off with the flautist, who takes Clarissa to her home. The Pryces happened to be at the concert with friends, and are very glad to see Clarissa alive and safe.

* Chapter 11: Clarissa's grandfather pays for her to have her daguerrotype taken, and Clarissa brings Hitty along. The daguerrotypist takes close-ups of Clarissa which do not include Hitty, and Clarissa is so upset over this that the daguerrotypist suggests Hitty should have her own portrait taken by herself. This is done, and Hitty speaks very highly of the result, though she does not know what may have become of it since. The other main event of the chapter is that Hitty, along with the Pryces, meets John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a famous Quaker and abolitionist as well as a poet. Hitty also mentions what she has heard of the Civil War; Clarissa's elder sister Ruth is engaged to a Union soldier who has been wounded and writes to her from the hospital.

* Chapter 12: Near the end of the Civil War, Hitty is packed up in camphor, because Clarissa is going away to a Quaker boarding-school. It is over two years later when she is unpacked, to find that the Pryces tried to mail her to some distant cousins of theirs in New York, but that the box went astray and she is now in the attic of a house on Washington Square, owned by a very rich family called the van Rensselaers. Hitty has been unearthed by a seamstress named Miss Milly Pinch, who wishes to become a proper fashion designer, but could not afford a doll on which to model her sewing skill. She dresses Hitty in a very fancy dress for this purpose, but before she can show Hitty to anyone, the daughter of the family, Isabella van Rensselaer, a rather spoiled little girl, sees Hitty and demands to keep her, since she was found in the van Rensselaers' attic and dressed with scraps from the van Rensselaers' clothes. Mr van Rensselaer eventually agrees to buy Hitty from Miss Pinch for Isabella, and Mrs van Rensselaer agrees to recommend Miss Pinch to a dressmaker she knows and to let Hitty be shown to the dressmaker as proof of Miss Pinch's skill. Isabella carries Hitty with her everywhere, and at one point, is so excited to meet Charles Dickens that she drops Hitty, and Dickens picks her up and politely returns her. Hitty and Isabella are both quite proud of this. :-)

* Chapter 13: On New Year's Eve of that very year, Isabella sneaks outdoors with Hitty to go and visit a family friend. She takes a roundabout road so as not to meet anyone who knows she isn't supposed to be out, and meets a gang of young hooligans who steal her cloak and hat, as well as Hitty. The hooligans consider setting Hitty on fire as a torch, but one of them has some younger siblings and asks if he may take Hitty home to them. This is done, and Hitty is eventually given to a quiet young cousin named Katie. Katie and her mother, a widow, live with members of their extended family in Rhode Island; Hitty rides with them by train to their home, and spends most of a year with Katie. Eventually Katie, who has caught a bad cold - Hitty doesn't specify, but the humans' reactions seem as if Katie has pneumonia or tuberculosis - is sent to live on a farm in the country for the summer, presumably through the Fresh Air Fund (which tells us this is 1877 or after). Katie begins to get better, and one day she takes Hitty on a hayride. Mice are found in the hay, and in the scuffle, Hitty is lost again. Hitty asserts - without much backing, it seems to me - that Katie probably forgot about Hitty as she grew stronger and could play with other children. Hitty spends several years in the hayloft.

* Chapter 14: Hitty is found in a cow's stall by a small boy, the son of a different family which has bought the farm from the family with whom Katie stayed. Two young artists are boarding with the family, and one of them, a portrait painter, takes Hitty to be his mascot. Any time he paints a little girl, he has her hold Hitty and tells her stories he makes up about how Hitty came to be in the hayloft, to get the little girl to sit still and not be bored. The artist explains to a friend at one point that Hitty is much better for his purpose than a china-headed doll because she has "no trying highlights". He travels all over the eastern seaboard with Hitty, and eventually they wind up in New Orleans, where the artist boards with two old ladies who had been Southern belles before the war - Miss Annette and Miss Hortense. There is a great Cotton Exposition to be held in New Orleans; Wikipedia informs me that this was a real thing and was held in 1884, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first recorded time the US exported cotton. Miss Annette and Miss Hortense borrow Hitty from the artist and dress her as a bride, using a very fine old cotton "wedding handkerchief" which they cut up to make her dress. *twitch twitch* My conservator's soul is horrified, but certainly the matter is historically accurate. :P

While the sisters are sewing, they discuss how both their fianc├ęs died in the Civil War, and Hitty muses a bit in the narration on how strange it is, "beyond the understanding of a doll", that people from both sides of the Civil War should be such nice people in her experience, and yet should hate each other so bitterly and have been so cruel to each other. Yeah, you and me both, Hitty. ;P Anyway, Hitty is put in a locked glass cabinet at the Exposition, where she sees many people and they see her. After some time, a young girl who has come regularly to see Hitty notices that the cabinet is left unlocked, and steals Hitty to be her own doll. This girl is named Sally Loomis, and lives on a riverboat with her father, its captain; Sally's mother is bedridden and lives on a "distant plantation", and Sally is a rather strange and wild young girl through having little parental attention and no company her own age. One day while the riverboat is tied up near a Black community, Sally sneaks Hitty off the boat and wanders into a church service where the preacher speaks on the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."

(All the African-American people in this book speak in stereotyped Negro eye dialect. I don't know when that became... commonly frowned upon - probably not until the 1960s - but I'm judging it anyway. *frown*)

Anyway, a bad storm blows up after the church service, and Sally, assuming God is going to kill her with lightning for stealing Hitty, runs down to the river sobbing "You can have her!" and throws Hitty in. BECAUSE. ^_^ I mean, it's in character, it's just... also really melodramatic and an obvious way to get Hitty transferred to another owner. *g*

* Chapter 15: Hitty floats in the river, getting her fine cotton wedding dress thoroughly ruined with the muddy water. *twitch* Eventually she is found by a pair of "Negro boys" (the terms "black" or "African-American" didn't become preferred till the 1960s/1970s), one of whom gives Hitty to his sister "Car'line". Hitty enjoys living with the black family, and stays with them from September until Christmas. Once again I kind of question Rachel Field's decision to tell this particular story, because Hitty's description of this family's life on the plantation where the older people used to be enslaved is very pleasant, with no downside depicted at all. Which is in character for Hitty, because she only sees what people talk about in front of Car'line... but still, it's a very bowdlerized portrayal. o_O

At Christmas time, the white plantation owners - an elderly "Colonel", his two daughters, and his two grandsons - give a Christmas feast for all the black plantation-dwellers, and are described in the kindest terms, as "generosity itself" and so forth. *critical politics face* I wouldn't be as harsh on this part of the book if the 1930s hadn't been a time when a lot of bowdlerized portrayals of slavery and Reconstruction were going around, from Gone with the Wind on down. But there's a lot I could say, about how "generosity itself" would be maybe breaking up the plantation for the former slaves to farm for themselves, or paying them much better wages for their hired labor, so they can afford not to live in the very same 8'x10' (2.5 x 3.5 meter) shacks they lived in as slaves... not just giving them a good supper and Christmas presents once a year. :P

Anyway, the Colonel's unmarried daughter, Miss Hope, recognizes Hitty as the missing doll from the Cotton Exhibition, and gives Car'line a very beautiful French china-headed doll from Miss Hope's own childhood in exchange for Hitty, since Hitty has to be returned to her proper owner, who at this point is the portrait artist. Miss Hope cleans Hitty's ruined finery as best she can and sends her back to the Exposition with a letter, but the Exposition has been over for months, and neither the committee nor the two old ladies who made Hitty's wedding dress know the artist's contact information. Hitty stays in her box for a while; eventually someone finds an old address of the artist's and sends Hitty along, hoping the Post Office can forward her to the correct place. The Post Office try their best, but eventually send Hitty to the dead-letter office, whence - after a long wait - she is eventually auctioned off to a postman, who trades her to another postman, who accidentally leaves her at a shop that sells pipes. The lady who owns the shop puts Hitty's box up on a shelf to wait for this postman to come back for her, but the next day, someone else takes down Hitty's box by mistake for one holding high-quality clay pipes, and sells it to a ticket agent at a train station. The ticket agent is quite cross when he finds out the mistake, but his wife takes Hitty and wraps her legs in cotton batting, turning her into a pincushion which she donates to be sold at a church fair the next month.

Whew. That was a lot of chapter. O_O

* Chapter 16: Hitty is sold at the church fair to a woman who wants a gift for her Great-Aunt Louella's birthday. Hitty is accordingly sent to Great-Aunt Louella, who doesn't think much of her. However, Aunt Louella has a birthday visitor the same day, a friend called Miss Pamela Wellington, who collects dolls and takes a liking to Hitty. Louella gives Pamela the pincushion, and Pamela takes it apart and dresses Hitty like a proper doll again. I might mention at this point that Hitty still has her chemise, since it was left on as part of the pincushion's padding. Miss Pamela likes Hitty very much, and eventually takes her on a visit to the countryside; while riding in a motor-car, a bump causes Hitty to fly out into the roadside bracken, and Miss Pamela and the friend she's visiting can't find Hitty.

Hitty is found less than a week later by a group of young people out on a picnic. We're now getting well into the early 1900s, since Hitty notices many horseless carriages on the road, and is "shocked" by the relatively scanty and tight clothing of the young people who find her. These young people leave Hitty in their rented wagon at the end of the day, and the livery-stable owner puts her on the windowsill in his office because he doesn't know what else to do with her. After the better part of a year, the livery-stable owner's daughter comes to give his office its yearly cleaning, and takes Hitty to her sister Carrie's little restaurant on a busy highway. Hitty notes at this point that the year, according to the office calendar, is 1913. Carrie decides that instead of giving Hitty to a child to play with, she'll try to sell her along with some other old things as a curiosity, since people are beginning to pay good money for antiques. So Carrie sets up an impromptu flea market, and after a few years, an old lady buys Hitty for two dollars and puts her in a "what-not" (a curio cabinet) with a lot of china animals which the old lady collects.

It turns out that this old lady lives in the Prebles' old cottage; we do not hear what happened to the Prebles themselves, only that this old lady is no relative but found the place for sale and liked the look of it, so she's made it her summer home. I think this is supposed to be a sort of closure for the first forty percent of the book which spent so much time tying up Hitty's life with that of the Prebles, but I didn't think when I was a kid and I still don't think that it's a very satisfactory sort of closure. :P

* Chapter 17: Finally, after many more years - about fifteen, if I'm mathing correctly - the old lady dies, and her cottage and everything in it are to be sold at auction. Hitty is lot number seventy-seven, and when the prospective buyers are looking everything over before the auction starts, an Old Gentleman - capitals original - whom Hitty likes very much on sight, looks Hitty over very carefully with an eye-glass and remarks to a friend that Hitty is "a very rare bit of early Americana". The auctioneer overhears this and jots it down for his spiel. A little girl opens the bidding on Hitty, offering one dollar, but is quickly outbid. Eventually it comes down to a bidding war between the Old Gentleman and... oh dear, I have to quote this. o_O

"[A] very large lady in a tight pink dress and bright green hat. This she wore pulled down over a mass of hair that stuck out in a bush about her far too rosy face, much as the Savage Chief's had done on the Island. Indeed, she reminded me of him strongly." Hitty takes an instant dislike to this lady, as we are meant to do as well. :P I'm... really disappointed in this particular bit of work; I think it's straight-up lazy writing, along with the obvious problems of using the implied fat-shaming and... whatever the bright-color-shaming and bushy-hair-shaming are, to make its point. :P (Classism? Something like that. The lady in pink is determined to get Hitty for the sole reason that Hitty is "rare", and in all ways reads to me as pretty much a classic Horrible Nouveau Riche type who is also Trying Too Hard To Look Pretty Because She's Shallow Like That - I assume the hair is permed, I can't tell if the pink face is rouge or overheating but Hitty's judging her either way, and the tight dress is part of the "mutton dressed as lamb" stereotype as well as the fat-shaming deal - whereas the Old Gentleman is neatly dressed in a gray suit, and is very dignified and polite, to the point that Hitty doesn't even mind him poking about her chemise and reading her name off it.)

*siiigh* Anyway, the bidding war ends Happily, with the Old Gentleman beating out the woman in pink by topping her bid right after the "going once, going twice", when the woman has assumed that she's won the bidding war and turned to walk off toward her shiny motor-car. I can't remember what, if anything, I thought of this incident as a kid, but as an adult and a writer, I think it's kind of cheap - a rather forced way to try to inject some extra tension into the end of the book, before we find out that the Old Gentleman is a buyer for the antique shop where Hitty started writing her memoirs way back in Chapter 1. :P I am disappoint.

* "Last Remarks": This is an epilogue that wraps up the story, just talking about the antique shop in New York and how Hitty has become quite a personality in the neighborhood, and expects at some point to be bought and carried away to more adventures. She mentions that she's even seen an airplane going by overhead, and maybe one day she will fly in one. The last line of the book is, "After all, what is a mere hundred years to well-seasoned mountain-ash wood?"

DONNNNNNNNE DONE DONE DONE DONE!!!!! :D I skipped so many details. This is a long book. It's only 207 pages, about half the length of a lot of 1920s Newberys, but it's so very tightly packed! O_O

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