Elizabeth George Speare,
The Witch of Blackbird Pond
(Houghton Mifflin, 1958;
Yearling, 1987)

In 1687, young orphan Katherine "Kit" Tyler leaves her sunny home in colonial Barbados to live in Wethersfield, a bleak Connecticut town, where her only family ekes a living from the soil in a strict and very foreign Puritan environment. For Kit, the change is almost more than she can bear; it takes a lot of time and patience before she begins to adapt to the harsh winters and unyielding moral code of her family and neighbors.

Kit grew up in a slave society on her grandfather's plantation, so the labors awaiting her in Connecticut are unfamiliar and unwelcome. Her bright and cheerful clothing (like her disposition) is out of place. She loves to read, but education for women is frowned on here -- and there's little to read besides the Bible, anyway. Kit, a strong swimmer, must also cope with the realization that a woman who doesn't sink in water in 17th-century New England is immediately suspected of witchcraft (and besides, the water here is cold).

There are a few bright patches in the landscape for Kit: the opportunity to teach children to read, the fiery blaze of New England foliage in the autumn, the warm acceptance of her two likeable cousins, the secret tutelage of a young, underprivileged girl named Prudence. And there's her unexpected friendship with Hannah, an elderly Quaker woman who lives outside of town; already driven from Massachusetts for being of the wrong faith, Hannah subsists alone in a tiny cottage built by her late husband, relying on the kindness of a few friends to survive.

But a headstrong girl with strange attitudes isn't safe in a region where witchcraft is accepted as a very real and constant danger, and where witches are dealt with quickly and harshly. Hannah is already suspect because she's a Quaker; can Kit escape suspicion when she befriends the old woman?

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a gift from my fiancee as we toured the area where the story is set, drew me quickly into a tumultuous era in American history when the yoke of English rule is beginning to weigh heavy on the backs of hardworking colonists, and a mob mentality could destroy lives without warning or hope of justice. The people in Kit's life are richly drawn, from her pious uncle to the fearful Prudence, from the rich young suitor to the stern reverend-doctor and his earnest apprentice, from outgoing cousin Judith and shy, tender cousin Mercy to the brash sailor who calls nearby Saybrook home.

The story, which won the Newbery Medal for children's literature, moves at a slow and measured pace but is never dull. Like, for instance, Laura Ingalls Wilder's ever-popular series of Little House books, much of Blackbird Pond is about life in a time that was simpler, yet harder. The action, when it occurs, feels more real in part because it's the exception, not the standard.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is an exceptional novel for young readers and adults alike. Nearly 50 years since its initial publication, the book deserves to be taken off the shelf and dusted time and again ... so read it, read it to your children, lend it to your friends and read it again.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 5 June 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.