The Witch of Blackbird Pond
The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Elizabeth George Speare (1959)
Read to: 6th - 7th grade
Read independently: 8th - 12th grade
We actually did not read this book but listened to it on CD in the car while driving back and forth to swimming lessons for my 7y8m son. Sixteen year old Kit from Barbados is on a boat coming to America. Deckhand Nathaniel (Nat) seemed oddly close to Nathaniel Bowditch. Kit is an impetuous girl who without warning, dives over the side of the boat to get a young child's toy. So, because of this act and the resulting effect of the other passengers witnessing her buoyancy, she is labeled a witch before even arriving at her new American home. (Because in this time period it was thought that only witches could float.)
There are a few references to Kit's view of American homes as boxy and small and horrible. The author short changes the reader by not providing a context of comparison which could have easily been accomplished by Kit describing her home in Barbados while reminiscing about it. Equally clueless though, is Kit; especially when it comes to people's religion. While still on ship she reads the Bible over a minister's shoulder and then voices her surprise that he spends his time reading such stuff. And when, after it is revealed that she lied to the Captain about being expected, she (and her seven trunks of clothing) arrives at her aunt's house it takes Kit quite a while to catch on that her relatives follow a Puritan and simplistic lifestyle. The first time she goes to Meeting she meets a 19 year old boy named William who instantly takes a liking to her. Naturally Kit's cousin Judith had had her eyes on William. Kit offers to step aside but Judith decides instead to set her eyes on John the Preacher that arrived on the boat with Kit.
So William arranges to call on Kit on a Saturday night. They sit silently together in the parlor and Kit is quite ruffled by it all. Then the preacher comes to call so Aunt Rachel rescues Kit by inviting the pair into the main sitting room with the others. There William becomes much more animated, even speaking of the house he's going to build. Unbeknownst to Kit, that's as good as an offer of marriage. Judith fills her in later and Kit is astonished since she and William barely spoke. Initially she says she won't do it but soon settles into the idea, especially when she realizes two things:
While she feels unappreciated by her relatives because she's not very useful, William appreciates her just for being and doesn't expect her to do anything
If she marries William she won't have to do chores as she does now with Judith
Kit seems to feel the chores are a bit beneath her. She doesn't say it quite so clearly but does reflect that in Barbados she had servants to do all the things she is now expected to do.
The whole courtship concept of a young man making a formal request to come to call on a young lady, and then just sitting in a room together, will likely be foreign to most youth of today. such antiquated concepts along with styles of speech and vocabulary raise the recommended reading level on this book. After a few chapters my 7y8m son said I could take it back to the library because it wasn't interesting to him but I insisted we finish it. It really feels more like a Young Adult book, like Twilight, than a children's story.
It's not until Chapter Eight that the relationship between Kit and Hannah, the supposed witch, even begins to take shape. Turns out Hannah is a Quaker and the Puritan's are all quite condemning of her on that fact alone. She pays a fine because she doesn't go to Meeting. She doesn't go because she doesn't think she'd be welcomed there. Turns out Nat Eaton (the boat captain's son) is Hannah's friend too. After a while Prudence, the little girl with the doll from the boat, also gets introduced to Hannah. Aunt Rachel, Judith, and Mercy all know Kit visits Hannah from time to time but all look the other way. One time Kit returns late. Nat walks her home and explains Kit had gone with him to help patch the roof at Hannah's. Uncle Matthew forbids Kit ever to go back there. Kit plays up the charity aspect but Uncle Matthew claims Hannah is not worthy of their charity! William happened to be there when kit arrived with Nat and I almost thought they were going to fight over her like Edward and Jacob over Bella.
In Chapter 11 we learn that even though Judith has "set her cap for" John, he seems oblivious of her and instead has eyes for another and so another triangle is formed. For a time all goes along well though, Kit with William and Judith with John. Then John goes off to war and a sickness invades the town. One day the lady from the boat, Good Wife Kruff leads a charge that Hannah is a witch and has brought the sickness upon the town. A posse tries to enlist Uncle Matthew to go help capture her but he refuses. Kit runs to warn Hannah and manages to get her away safely - thanks to Nat and his ship appearing miraculously out of the fog. Nat tries to get Kit to leave with him and for a moment I thought she would. Soon charges are brought against her since she is linked to Hannah via the school books she had taken to Hannah's house to teach Prudence. Kit refuses to save herself at the cost of Prudence and is about to be sent out of town to trial when Nat shows up with the girl. There are some tense moments in the court room. I thought my 7y8.5m son had stopped listening long ago but at this point he commented that the lady just wants to accuse anyone of anything. The whole concept of witch trials and religious persecution is rather mature for an elementary student. I've tried to provide him with some insight along the way through this book and I was pleased to see that he was grasping at least one of the large branches of the tree, even if not recognizing each individual leaf. If The Scarlett Letter is still on reading lists perhaps it will be a bit familiar and a smidge more easier to get into if there is a subconscious tie to childhood story time with mom.
I half expected Kit to rush out of the courtroom with Nat and walk away into the sunset happily ever after but the book went on for a bit more until other things got properly sorted out as well.