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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Hope Searching for Its Heart

A Doll Named Hope, Mj Pettengill
A Doll Named Hope, Mj Pettengill

When I was fifteen, I went to Florida with my family. It was the first time I had gone there, and I liked it. One of the highlights was visiting the Seminole Indian Village. Watching a young warrior wrestle a rather large alligator took my breath away. I am also a tropical beach kind of girl, so being in a sunny warm climate was enjoyable—a nice break from the frigid winter.

As we were leaving Seminole Village, I spotted an Elder sitting outdoors crafting dolls. She was engrossed in her work, seated comfortably on the ground, surrounded by scraps of material—odds and ends. I moved in closer to see that she was making dolls. These dolls were in her image, wearing identical dresses, and their hair matched.

This was during a time when I knew a handful of stories about Nellie, my paternal great-grandmother, and her Abenaki heritage. My aunt shared these tales with us; my father was not ready to own that part of himself. (He did willingly accept his ancestry when he neared his death.) His brother didn’t speak about Nellie then, so I was on my own.

They grew up in a time when, due to regrettable shame, denying your Native ancestry was somewhat expected. This era was another example of a brutal history involving the genocide of the Indigenous peoples. There are still many unanswered questions.

I watched the Elder with great interest. I mentioned to my father how magnificent it was that she was not only making this doll but that it looked like her down to the matching dress and hair.

I was not the kind of girl who asked for much. However, there was something in me that believed that I was meant to have one of her dolls. Of course, I had no idea what it would mean to me in the future.

Being the kind and caring man he was, my father purchased a doll for me. I have always cherished her. When I wrote the first draft of my novel, Etched in Granite, I unconsciously wrote about Hope—the faceless doll made by Nanatasis—Christian name Nellie. I was so immersed in the characters’ narratives that I was unaware that, along with Abigail, Hope represented an earlier version of me, another parallel.

Abigail wanted the doll that she saw at the store. Her father gave it to her for Christmas, and she called her Hope. How wonderful it was when, upon her sentencing, Abigail learned that Nellie was the doll maker and that she had her own doll as well. This was the beginning of a long and meaningful bond forged by the two women, bridging generations and ethnicity.

When I write, I am in the zone. I didn’t stop to compare my experience with others that I was writing about. We are all walking libraries, consisting of volumes of reference material from our past. From time to time, I thought about my doll and Hope, but I did not go into it too much until last winter.

I had my studio winterized, bringing coziness and an active colony of rodents. I’m unsure if there are flying squirrels, red squirrels, mice, or all of the above. When I enter the studio, I am greeted with tiny flecks of chewed insulation and a few pine nuts scattered here and there. That’s okay. I’ll deal with it appropriately.

One day, upon entering, I came face to face with my Indian doll. She was sitting in my office chair. I had placed her on the shelf near my father’s photo. No problem, I put her back in place.

When I returned, she was, sitting on a lower shelf as if I had carefully placed her there. This went on for months. I didn’t spend much time out there in the winter, so it happened about twice a week.

A few days ago, when I went out to the studio, I planned many tasks and sat at my desk to get to work. I reached down to grab something and spotted my doll in an open box on the floor. How odd. It required effort to place it there, so I put her on my desk near my wooden blending bowl. I pressed my glasses against her to make it more of a challenge for a rodent to move her.

Then, it occurred to me that I had never named my doll. I failed to make the obvious connection between myself, Abigail, Nellie, and the Seminole Elder.

There is one thing left to do. I hereby declare that my doll’s name is Hope. She is often mentioned in the first book and then again in the third. I take this as a substantial nudge to include her in the current book—The Crows’ Path, Book Four.

With Abigail, I shared gratitude when my father gave me this doll. And like Abigail, my doll meant more after my father’s passing.

I returned to the studio today. Hope was secure and in the same place. Sometimes, it is nothing more than a simple acknowledgment that is necessary. It is Hope searching for its heart.


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