16-year-old Kit Tyler, late of Barbados, is truly alone. Orphaned at an early age, raised by an indulgent grandfather who's recently died, she comes to 17th-century Connecticut in search of her mother's sister whom she's never met. What she finds is that her aunt is the wife of a hard Puritan man, and the insular community to which Kit comes is one that she may never really feel a part of.
Part of the problem is that Kit is used to servants, carefree days, the warmth and beauty of her native Barbados, lots of books to read, and getting her way. In Wethersfield, CT, by contrast, she has to work hard, obey her stern uncle Matthew Wood, sit through long sermons, be courted by William Ashby, and forget about the handsome ship captain's son, Nat Eaton.
Most difficult for Kit, however, is having to hide her friendship with the local Quaker, Hannah Tupper. Hannah lives beside Blackbird Pond, a refugee from the Quaker persecutions of Boston, and by all local accounts a witch. Things get really crazy when Kit is found guilty by association, and comes before the town magistrates under suspicion of witchcraft and sorcery.
Things work out alright in the end, and Kit eventually gets her way in everything. While it's not explicitly stated, we understand that it's because Kit "follows her heart" as per Hannah's advice that she's able to come through the whole ordeal unscathed. The Puritan community might not be all bad, but they aren't half as nice and brave as headstrong Kit.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond doesn't work historically. It's an interesting idea for a story, but because Elizabeth George Speare gives her heroine entirely 20th century sensibilities it falls flat. Kit is free of prejudice of all kinds, is completely open-minded, does what she wants, and imports novel teaching methods into the village dame school. Even given her unique upbringing, she's still part of 17th-century British Empire culture, and would think and act as such.
Speare also, like most modern novelists, grievously misrepresents the Puritans. This isn't to say she gets all her facts wrong—the Puritans in America were guilty of some pretty bad things, including persecution of Quakers, racism, and slaveholding. But she fails to understand the Puritan focus on religion, which was a Gospel-focused hatred of sin and love of Christ rather than a dour hatred of joy and love of legalism.
To Speare's credit, Matthew Wood, Dr. Bulkeley (who was an actual person), and others are portrayed as intelligent, reasonable, and not entirely as stern as they seem, but she also derides long sermons, frequent Bible reading, and close attention to new ideas to detect heresy.
She also accepts as fact many historical details that are more fiction than reality. The Puritans did not only wear plain black clothes, they did laugh, smile, dance and play music, and they provided for the less fortunate. Instead of these truths, however, Speare opts for the melodramatic depictions of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
The fact that The Witch of Blackbird Pond ends in happiness for everyone suggests that Speare approves of Kit's behavior. The girl is frequently disobedient, scorns the religiosity of the people who've taken her in, and hates listening to the Bible. Instead of ever being disciplined for this, however, she continues to do what she wants and get away with it. In fact, Speare adds her own commentary throughout to indicate that Kit's attitudes are not only acceptable, but right.
It should be no surprise that this book was chosen as a Newbery Medalist. Many of the books on the list are chosen more for their propagandistic message than any innate value they have as reading material for children or teens.The Witch of Blackbird Pond is fairly slow-paced, historically inaccurate, and features a rebellious heroine, all of which make it a perfect selection for a bunch of liberal adults who want to create a horde of young people in their own image.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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