Friday 29 August 2014

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

"On a morning in mid-April 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor."

Author:  Elizabeth George Speare

Era:  1687

Published:  1958 (Houghton Mifflin)

Award:  Newberry Medal (1959)

Age Range:  8 - 14 years old

Review:  ★★★★

In 1687, upon the death of her grandfather, Kit Tyler travels from her home in Barbados to stay with her aunt and uncle in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  A long way from everything that she's used to, Kit finds the Puritan community austere and not particularly welcoming, but finds a friend in Nat Eaton, the captain's son, and also befriends an outcast, a Quaker woman named Hannah Tupper.  But when Kit is accused of witchcraft, she must use all her wits and the friendships that she has made in her new community to prove her innocence.

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Background:  In the face of religious persecution in England, many men, women and children travelled to the New World and settled in colonies there.  In autumn of 1635, a number of sixty men, women and children travelled from Massachusetts and settled at Wethersfield, Windsor and Hartford. In 1636 the Connecticut colony was set up for a Puritan settlment.  The Saybrook Colony and the New Haven Colony eventually merged with Connecticut Colony.  In 1662, Charles II granted the Connecticut colony the right to their charter (like their own constitution) and to administer their own government, until Sir Edmund Andros arrived in 1686 under King James II.  He had plans to increase the king's power by uniting Massechusetts and Connecticut, therefore revoking their charter and setting up a new government.  This caused political turmoil in the Colonies.   On Halloween of 1687, Andros appeared in Connecticut with plans to remove the charter and convene a new government, but during a meeting, the charter disappeared under mysterious circumstances and, according to legend, was hidden in a hollow oak tree.  In the end, the new government concentrated more on New York and Massechusetts, and Connecticut, in return ignored the new government.  When James II was deposed by William and Mary in 1689, Boston sent Andros back to England in chains.

The Charter Oak, Hartford
source Wikipedia

Setting:  Wethersfield in 1687.  It is a strong Puritan community but the settlement is relatively new and survival is still an arduous task.  People are wary of strangers and resistant to new ideas.

17th Century Puritan Meeting House
(Old Ship Church, Hingham, MA)
source Wikipedia


Katherine Tyler (Kit):  she moves to Barbados to live with her aunt and uncle in Wethersfield.  Initially, headstrong and lacking self-control, through her experiences and contact with the people of Wethersfield, Kit learns patience, kindness, and temperance.

Nathaniel Eaton (Nat): son of the captain of The Dolphin.  He helps Kit to mature and grow as a person while challenging her actions.  He often seems to be present in times of trouble.

Hannah Tupper:  A Quaker who had been driven from Massachusetts and has settled in Wethersfield but is still shunned and persecuted by the community, who says that she is a witch.  She is befriended by Kit and is also friends with Nat.

Matthew Wood:  Kit's uncle.  While severe and quiet, he has a silent nobility that is not easy to see.  He is loyal and sensible, however, and sticks by Kit during her troubles.

Rachel Wood:  Kit's aunt, her mother's sister.

Judith Wood:  Matthew and Rachel's daughter.  Proud and haughty, she is draw to luxuries and dislikes her life of toil.

Mercy Wood:  Matthew and Rachel's second daughter.  She is lame, but her sweet and giving nature is truly attractive.

John Holbrook:  son of a tanner and unable to pay the tuition for college, he has come to Wethersfield to study under the Reverend Bulkeley.

William Ashby:  a wealthy young man in town who singles out Kit to be his future wife.  He is staid and practical and unimaginative.

Prudence Cruff:  a small, scrawny child who is neglected by her parents, particularly her mother, Goodwife Cruff.  Kit gains her admiration by rescuing her doll and covertly teaches her to read and write.

Historical characters:

Reverend Bulkeley: an ardent Royalist, he was faithful to the English king.  His philosophy collided with Matthew Wood's and later, Holbrook's, his student.

Mr. Eleazar Kimberly:  a schoolmaster in Wethersfield from 1661 to 1689.  He married three times and had five children.

Governor Edmund Andros: sent by King James II to the Connecticut colony, his purpose was to remove the colony's charter, threatening their right to self-government.

Captain Samuel Talcott: very little information on this character

Buttolph-Williams House - Wethersfield
considered the house where Kit lived
source Wikipedia

Quakers:  Another break-away sect from The Church of England, and called The Society of Friends, Quakers believed that a person could communicate directly with God and therefore, there was no need for ministers, priests or traditional church customs.  They were often persecuted even more harshly than the Puritans in England.  Some colonies refused to allow them entry.

Children would use Hornbooks to practice their letters
source Wikimedia Commons


What does the central character want?

  • Kit wants acceptance from her new family and from the community.  She also wants them to broaden their outlook so it fits with the society and expectations that she was used to in Barbados.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  • The community's austere, traditional views and suspicious nature prevent them from accepting Kit.   Kit's own impetuous nature and sometimes reckless actions also keep her from getting what she wants.

How does Kit finally get what she wants?

  • From learning self-control and by developing an understanding of the people she comes to live with, Kit learns to find peace in the community.  Most of the people also show signs of greater tolerance and more acceptance of new ideas than they had hitherto shown. 

Conflicts:  Man vs. Society   Kit does not understand her new community and comes immediately into conflict with it.  Hannah, also, does not fit into this community.  The community's lack of tolerance and quick judgement enhance the conflict.

  • Intolerance
  • Superstition
  • Identity
  • Judgement
  • Acceptance
  • Friendship
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Understanding

This book truly has so much depth to it, that you could spend weeks studying it.  From the history of Connecticut, to witches in 17th century America, Barbados, the historical characters, etc., the amount of possible "rabbit trails" is endless.  A truly fascinating book and a classic in its own right!

Elizabeth George Speare

Quotes attributed to Elizabeth George Speare:

  • No, writing is not lonely.  It is a profession crowded with life and sound and color.  I feel privileged to have had a share in it.
  • Essentially and most simply put, plot is what the characters do, to deal with the situation they are in.  It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters.
  • I do not believe an historical novel should gloss over the pain and ugliness.  But I do believe that the hero ….. should on the last page ……. still be standing, with the strength to go to whatever the future may hold.

Further reading:  

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  1. This was a favorite of mine in elementary school. I still think of it fondly. It is also an excellent example of not judging a book before reading it--the mother of one of my classmates was horrified that a book about a "witch" would be on our classroom shelves.

    1. I've heard of reactions like that, simply based on the title. What is ironic is that the book doesn't contain any witches or people who claim to be witches. It further emphasizes the danger of judging something without getting to know it. Speare did her job well! :-)

  2. I finally have some time to do the 'blog rounds' and enjoyed this review. I am from Connecticut and knew nothing about this part of its history. Purtian influences are part of the state's DNA. That is probably where I got my 'Puritan work ethic'!

    1. I like their citizens' stubbornness with regard to keeping their charter. Did you inherit some of that stubbornness as well? ;-) Hee hee!

      Connecticut seems to me to be such a pastoral romantic state, but I've never been there. ;-) I'd like to visit there one day.

  3. Finally got around to reading this book! Again, thanks for nudging me into 'children's literature'! It is realaxing read and I get to go back to my own memories about reading while growing up! I was amazed how Speare remembered that a girl from Barbados had never seen the 'Fall colors' of New England! It is a beautiful time when nature turns its leaf. The character I think every young reader can the loving, kind, constant Hannah. The grandmother-like shoulder to cry on.

    1. I remember being so-so about this book as a child, but re-reading it as an adult, I loved it. Speare makes Kit's life come alive and the reader is truly transported back to 1687.

      BTW, I would love to see the colours of New England!