The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
originally published 1958
Dell Yearling, 7th printing, 1987
Genre: Young adult, children’s literature, historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: Sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler fled Barbados for New England, leaving behind an unwanted suitor and the poverty left after she’d settled her grandfather’s estate. Her only living relative is her mother’s sister, her Aunt Rachel, once the toast of a regiment and now married to a Puritan in Connecticut colony. Desperate, Kit buys passage on the Dolphin with her last funds. Though she befriends the captain’s son Nat Eaton and the captain’s wife, both native New Englanders, Kit’s first encounter with New England is a shocking one; Kit is astounded that the collection of small houses and shacks at Saybrook could be called a town, much less a thriving port, and her bright silks and free ways do not impress the dour local travelers who embark at Saybrook. They are further appalled when an impulsive act of charity on Kit’s part proves that she can swim–something Nat Eaton warns her against, as it is said that only witches float. The only other friend Kit makes is John Holbrook, an earnest young man traveling to Wethersfield to study with the esteemed Reverend Gershom Bulkeley, but even he is shocked by her Royalist tendencies and her exposure to plays and poetry.
From that inauspicious start things only get worse. Aunt Rachel and her husband Matthew had no idea that Kit was coming, nor that she would need to stay, and though they try to make her welcome, her presence puts a strain on their family. After all, Kit has been spoiled and pampered since birth; her silk dresses are inappropriate for housework and her soft white hands clumsy at even the simplest chore. Kit blunders her way through every chore, and ruins dinner. She outrages Uncle Matthew by airily declaring that she only attends Church and Christmas, and infuriates her envious cousin Judith with her many beautiful gowns, gloves, bonnets, and other fripperies. Only crippled cousin Mercy and timorous Aunt Rachel try to make Kit welcome, but even they cannot shelter Kit from the fact that she is an exotic alien in dark, stern Wethersfield.
Desperately homesick and miserable after yet another failure, one that threatens Mercy and a source of income for the family, Kit runs to the Great Meadows, where she happens upon Hannah Tupper, resident witch. Of course, Hannah is no witch, merely a lonely old Quaker woman, driven out of other communities years ago with her husband, and now forced to eke out a living on the edge of town. Together with Hannah, and Prudence Cruff, Kit forms her own coterie of friends, one which surprisingly includes Nat Eaton, who also found a friend he needed in Hannah once years before. Together, they form a circle of friendship that is threatened when illness strikes every household in Wethersfield, and the mob comes searching first for Hannah, then for Kit.
God, I LOVE THIS BOOK. I LOVE IT. LOVE IT! Seriously, of all the books I read in elementary school, it is one that stuck with me the most. Even Monday, when I told my little sister that I was at the part with the hearing, when Nat brings in Prudence, she freaked out: “I remember that! OMG! It’s so good!” I have chills just thinking about that scene. I love Kit, and I love The Witch of Blackbird Pond so hard, and I dare you find someone who didn’t.
It’s kind of the opposite of Little House, in that all of the work that so enchants readers when Laura (or Almanzo) does it becomes drudgery when silk-clad, haughty Kit is forced to. Of course, that is half the power, that our perceptions of the world around Kit are shaped by Speare and her observations, and that Kit is so real to us. We feel for her at the loss of her beloved grandfather, the only parent she ever knew, an understanding, kind man, who played with her and taught her the pleasures of literature. When compared to the endless toil and grey misery of Connecticut, well, New England falls far short.
But then Speare pulls a trick on us, and along with Kit, we begin to appreciate the subtle beauties of New England, from the weather and seasons to the strength of character in those willing to struggle against them to create a home against all odds. As Heinlein has said before, a certain amount of patriotism is considered unfashionable these days. But when an artist like Elizabeth George Speare describes the intestinal fortitude some men (let’s face it, it was mostly men then in the public realm, unfortunately) had to stand up to government oppression, and then links it to the birth of this nation, well, I get a little worked up. I mean, it’s inspirational! Plus, she mentions Ann Bradstreet, and I do love her. But behind all of that turmoil, within the house in Wethersfield, there is love. Kit learns what it means to have people stand up for you, even when they might not agree with you, because you are family. She learns that love can sometimes come from even grudging respect, and that sharing troubles creates a bond between people, things she might never have learned in her old, pampered world. But the changes come gradually, and in fits and starts, as Kit struggles to fit in in Connecticut Colony.
And oh, Kit! You have such pretty dresses! And you’re so, so relatable. What pre-adolescent or adolescent does not feel at some point like an alien? (As a fellow tropical transplant, I had a particular empathy for her.) So flawed and ordinary, Kit is entirely sympathetic, even when you want to shake her. And Nat is such a doll; Speare deftly adds the lightest touch of romance–and a good deal of that involves other people and their triangles. Kit is a young person just learning what it is to love, learning about what that means and what she desires in a home and friendships and family.
Beyond the romance, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is driven by its characters: serene Mercy, stolid William, brave Prudence, wise Hannah, and all the rest populate the story and bring it to life. Without those characters, Kit could not develop from the frivolous–albeit spunky–girl who traveled from Barbados into a strong-willed, hard-working woman capable of self-sacrifice and unselfishness. Speare also has her characters explore issues of class and discrimination, juxtaposing the irrational prejudices against other religions held by those that schoolchildren are taught to revere for their desire for freedom of religion. Speare also keeps her characters from being too modern or having anachronistic ideas; Kit and the rest are very much products of their time, with little in the way of modern -isms, and all the faults that implies.
Totally great, and further proof that the Newberry doesn’t go to boring, crap books, as has been fashionable to say of late. An excellent historical fiction for young readers, and a treat for older ones as well. There is high drama and suspense, and one of the most thrilling courtroom scenes in children’s literature. If I’m ever in Connecticut, I will be hitting Saybrook and Wethersfield.
See also: Witches’ Children by Patricia Clapp, Calico Bush by Rachel Field, The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
Cover: Kit running through the woods. Her dress doesn’t seem near bright or finer enough, nor are the woods very ominous. I much prefer the original cover (left), which has a moodiness, but also a delicacy that suits the story. Some of the past covers were pretty heinous (middle), and I must say that I never cared for that romance novel-esque Nineties cover (right), with her cliche costume and primly clasped hands across her waist. Bah!
The long rows of onions looked endless, their sharp green shoots already half hidden by encroaching weeds. Judith plumped matter-of-factly to her knees and began to pull vigorously. Kit could never get over her amazement at her cousin. Judith, so proud and uppity, so vain of the curls that fell just so on her shoulder, so finicky about the snowy linen collar that was the only vanity allowed her, kneeling in the dirt doing work that a high-class slave in Barbados would rebel at. What a strange country this was!
29 August – 31 August