I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was right around Katie’s age, and I remember I liked it a lot. But somehow in the past 40 years, I had forgotten pretty much all of it, so it was almost like reading a brand new book.
Okay – I have to admit it – I didn’t technically read this one. I listened to it on audiobook. (Katie won’t let me get away with calling that reading.) I think it counts – especially since I’ve spent so much time playing the part of audiobook for the family. It’s a good audiobook. It’s engaging and easy to follow – the story lends itself to the read-aloud format. Lots of colorful interaction and drama.
The title of this story brings forth all types of interesting imagery – we might wonder if it’s a fantasy story, if the witch is real or imaginary, good or bad, the main character or a lurking menace for our protagonist. Just by its name, The Witch of Blackbird Pond does not immediately identify itself as a historical novel – at least not to me. But then, I’m one who is always on the lookout for witches and spirits and things that go bump in the night, so maybe I’m not a fair judge.
At the beginning of the tale we find ourselves on board a ship in the late 17th century alongside Kit Tyler, a teenage girl who has come from Barbados, bound for the colony of Connecticut. She is on her way to her mother’s sister and her family – people she has never met, and who don’t know that she is coming. At her arrival Kit is faced with a whole lot of unknowns and new experiences – something that she finds out quite dramatically when she jumps into the Connecticut River to retrieve a child’s toy. After growing up on a tropical island, swimming is as natural as walking to Kit – but icy cold water is not. She is shocked by the sensation, and the locals are appalled by her behavior – what kind of girl is this, who is as comfortable in the water as on land? Only witches float – everyone knows that. And what kind of girl has no concern over getting her clothes wet? Unimportant to a girl with trunks full of dresses; unthinkable among folks who may have no available change of clothes appropriate to the season.
So Kit makes an immediate impression on the folks in Connecticut. And they make one on her, and she’s not sure that she likes it. But, she has little choice – her grandfather is dead and she has nowhere else to go, unless she wants to marry a much older man who is willing to pay off her grandfather’s debts. She’d rather take her chances embarking on a new adventure up north. I can’t say that I blame her.
Kit learns that she is in for quite a change even before she gets off the boat. She strikes up a friendship with a pleasant, scholarly young man, John Holbrook, but even though he is kind and does not shun her as a suspicious stranger, his reactions let her know just how deep their differences are. She is going from a land of sunshine and palms, servants, pretty clothes and lots of leisure time, to a place of frigid winters, few luxuries and year-round hard work. And there are other differences in store – one evening, Kit takes up a serious theological book that John is reading:
“‘Goodness!’ Kit wrinkled up her nose. ‘Is this what you read all day long?’ She looked up to find John staring at her.
‘You can read that?’ he questioned, with the same amazement he had shown when she had proved she could swim. ‘How did you learn to read when you say you just ran wild like a savage and never did any work?’
‘Do you call reading work? I don’t even remember how I learned. When it was too hot to play, Grandfather would take me into his library where it was dark and cool, and read to me out loud from his books, and later I would sit beside him and read to myself while he studied.’
‘What sort of books?’ John’s voice was incredulous.
‘Oh, history, and poetry, and plays.’
‘Yes, the plays were the best. Wonderful ones by Dryden and Shakespeare and Otway.’
‘Your grandfather allowed a girl to read such things?’
‘The were beautiful, those plays! Have you never read them?’
John’s pale cheeks reddened. ‘There are no such books in Saybrook. In Boston, perhaps. But the proper use of reading is to improve our sinful nature, and to fill our minds with God’s holy word.'”
I’ve a feeling we’re not in Barbados any more, Kit.
Since we’re entering a story set in a Puritan community in 17th century New England, during a time period when folks were actually on the lookout for witches, we can expect a bit of commentary on religious attitudes and practices of the day. One thing I appreciate about this book, however, is that, while the story does indeed include a witch trial, it does not portray all Puritans as strict, narrow minded and holier-than-thou. Serious, yes. Concerned with Godly behavior, yes. Hard working, yes. Ignorant, superstitious and uncharitable – a few – just like anywhere else, during any time period.
Speare shows disagreements and misunderstandings from various points of view, but also shows people who are trying hard to be fair and loving to each other, even when they don’t understand. We see Kit settling into her new lifestyle, learning to help around the house, and even contemplating marriage to a serious young man who seems to have little to say to her, but has clearly decided he wants her as a wife.
After one of those times when others were not being so understanding about things like creative teaching methods (such as using a play to illustrate a Bible story), Kit is befriended by Hannah Tupper – a widow who is shunned by the rest of the town. Hannah is someone on the outskirts, someone who doesn’t come to meeting on Sunday, someone suspected of being a witch.
Kit finds that Hannah has been persecuted and mistrusted because she is a Quaker, and disliked and suspected of all sorts of misdeeds simply because she keeps to herself, appears to be self-sufficient and seems content to continue as such. Far from being bitter about her treatment by the townsfolk, Hannah is kind and generous to any who come to her. Kit discovers that Nat Eaton, first mate on the ship that brought her from Barbados, is also a friend of Hannah’s. Soon, Prudence, the little girl whose doll Kit saved from the cold river joins them in their visits, as Kit disobeys her Aunt and Uncle and defies Prudence’s parents and secretly teaches the girl to read and write.
As often happens, in stories and in real life, things happen, secrets are found out and explanations do not always convince the powers that be. Kit finds herself on trial for witchcraft, accused of many impossible and downright ridiculous things, when all she did was befriend an old woman and teach a neglected and abused child how to read.
Is Kit in trouble because she went against popular opinion and the expectations of those around her? Or is she in trouble because she did it secretly? She was doing good things, but was also lying about it to people who cared about her. And to defend herself, she would end up getting someone else in trouble. And she needs someone to risk getting in trouble to get her out of it all. It’s the type of dilemma that is not peculiar to the time of the witch trials, and it provides an educational and thought-provoking situation for young readers.
I won’t give it all away and spoil the ending for anyone – but I will assure you that the story wraps up in a positive and satisfying (yet still believable) way. I recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond as a novel that strikes a nice balance between history lesson and human-interest, coming-of-age story.
Number of pages: 249
Date of publication: 1958
Story time and setting: 1687, a small town in Connecticut Colony
First line: “On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the rigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook Harbor. ”
Main characters: Kit Tyler, 16 years old, come to live with her only family after the death of her grandfather; Aunt Rachel (her mother’s sister) and Uncle Matthew Wood; cousins Mercy and Judith; Nathaniel Eaton, first mate on the Dolphin; Hannah Tupper, neighborhood “witch”
Reading age level: 10 and up – Amazon’s recommendation is 9 and up; I think that’s a bit of a stretch, and for vocabulary and subject matter it would probably be more accessible and interesting to 11 and older. (Typical examples of “big words” used: apprehension, provocative, unorthodox, decorum.)
Emotional/Maturity level: While this story doesn’t deal with much that is outright disturbing or inappropriate for young kids to read about, it does dwell on a lot of grown-up issues like suspicion, gossip, courting rituals, treason – enough that even if a kid can handle the vocabulary, they may not quite know what’s going on as the story unfolds. Part of it is awareness of the historical setting, but it’s more a sense of the day-to-day, real-world concerns of adults. Our heroine is 16, but in this era, that places her right on the brink of marriage and adult responsibilities.