For most contemporary Americans, colonial America is a hazy set of images and stereotypes: Christopher Columbus discovering the New World, and Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating the first Thanksgiving around a rough wood table loaded down with food … and then what? The Witch of Blackbird Pond provides readers with a realistic and vivid portrait of colonial New England and sketches the larger transatlantic issues that defined the colonies’ political landscape.
Along the way, author Elizabeth George Speare brings three aspects of this period to life for her readers. The first is the physical reality of colonial living: almost every chapter details the sounds, smells, and laborious tasks that went into making a life in this new world. Second, Speare shows the political origins of the American Revolution at its earliest stages, as the inhabitants of Connecticut struggle to define their relation to the crown and their English homeland. Third, and perhaps most alien to contemporary readers, Speare explores the emotional spectrum of the religious life of Connecticut Colony. Most of this exploration focuses on Puritan beliefs and practices. In Matthew Wood and John Holbrook, Speare creates characters that embody the best that Puritanism offered its followers: an all-encompassing dedication and moral fiber that could, and did, stand up to almost anything. But in figures such as Goodwife Cruff, Speare gives readers an example of the worst of Puritanism—the spite and narrow-mindedness that led to the colonial witch trials. Hannah Tupper’s gentle Quaker attitudes and point of view and Kit Tyler’s relative secular stance round out this picture of the colonial soul, showing that it is far richer and more complex than most of us suspected.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond follows one character, Katherine Tyler (known throughout the novel as “Kit”), through one year in Connecticut Colony. It opens when she is sailing into the mouth of the Connecticut River aboard the Dolphin in mid-April 1687, and it ends with her making plans to leave the colony in early May of the following year. The novel follows a chronological order and focuses on three general topics: Kit’s entry into the life of Connecticut Colony and her attempts to fit in, the relationships she and others form during her year there, and, most dramatically, a witchcraft scare involving Kit and the old woman who becomes her friend, Hannah Tupper. This all plays out against a backdrop of political tumult, as the colonists are concerned with the English crown’s attempts to change their charter.
All four threads are interwoven, but the bulk of the early chapters are devoted to Kit’s arrival in Connecticut Colony. She sails there from Barbados in the West Indies after the death of the beloved grandfather who had raised her. An orphan from an early age, Kit’s choice to come to Connecticut is a mix of bold initiative and relative despair. She knows her Aunt Rachel (Kit’s mother’s sister) lives there, and Kit thinks she will live with Rachel and her husband, Matthew Wood. However, she also does this because she is broke and alone and really has nowhere else to go.
That Kit’s isolation is matched by her ignorance of Connecticut is underscored by the novel’s opening chapters. Kit is unimpressed by her first sight of the colony, and then, when a child drops a toy in the river, she jumps in the water to get it. She is surprised by the cold—and even more surprised to learn that swimming, common and accepted in the West Indies, is associated with witchcraft in her new home.
When Kit finally gets to Wethersfield, where Rachel and Matthew Wood live, sailors from the Dolphin carry her many trunks to the home and leave Kit to face her new family alone. The Woods are shocked to meet her, as Kit has not told them she is coming, but they eventually accept her into their home with various degrees of warmth.
The Wood family consists of Matthew, Rachel, and two daughters: Judith, pretty but somewhat judgmental; and Mercy, crippled but kind. The family quickly introduces Kit to a whirlwind of new experiences, all of which she bumbles. Kit is clumsy at those that involve skill (carding wool, making soap, etc.), and those that involve reading social cues, such as noticing the meaning of comments dropped by people she meets at worship services, are simply unfamiliar to her. As a result, Kit finds herself no more at ease in Wethersfield after several months. In fact, several things happen to make her feel even less at home. William Ashby, a very eligible bachelor, begins to court her, but Kit both lacks interest in William and doesn’t understand what he sees in her. William’s attention to Kit also allows another development: Kit’s cousin Judith decides that she is going to marry John Holbrook, a young scholar who came to Wethersfield on the Dolphin at the same time as Kit to study with a local minister.
In another development that seems positive at first, Kit is selected to help her cousin Mercy teach the younger children of the community during a brief summer school session. When Kit tries to liven up the lessons, which are mostly rote memorization and drill, her choice of having the children act out a story is taken as “playacting,” a sin, and Kit is dismissed...
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Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 1
Kit Tyler (Katherine): a sixteen-year-old orphan going to Wethersfield, Connecticut, to live with her mother’s sister.
Nat Eaton (Nathaniel): the son of the Dolphin’s captain.
Mrs. Eaton: Captain Eaton’s kind wife.
Captain Eaton: captain of the Dolphin.
John Holbrook: a theology student coming to Wethersfield to study with Reverend Bulkeley.
Goodwife Cruff: a new passenger bound for Wethersfield.
Goodman Cruff: the quiet and henpecked husband of Goodwife Cruff.
Prudence Cruff: a little girl who drops her doll in the water.
In April 1687, Kit Tyler arrives at Connecticut Colony, sailing into Saybrook Harbor aboard the Dolphin. As the ship arrives, Kit views her new home and is joined on deck by Nat Eaton, the son of the ship’s captain. Kit finds her first sight of the American colonies underwhelming, even depressing; it is all too dim and underdeveloped after her warm and colorful home in the West Indies. Kit and Nat talk until it is time for the first longboat to go to shore, when Kit begs a place aboard it so that she can have a chance to set foot on America for the first time and so that she can accompany Mrs. Eaton, who has been kind to her during the voyage. Kit has been on ship so long that she wobbles a bit once on land, but she enjoys watching the sailors load supplies.
Four new passengers accompany the supplies. One of them, a little girl, accidentally drops the wooden doll her grandfather had made for her into the water. When she is so upset about losing it, Kit dives in to get it. She is surprised by how cold the water is and more surprised still that Nat dives in to “save” her because it is so uncommon for women—or anyone—to know how to swim in the colonies.
Once back on board, Kit meets John Holbrook, one of the new...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 2
A redheaded sailor: a good-natured sailor aboard the Dolphin.
It takes nine days for the Dolphin to sail the forty-three miles from Saybrook to Wethersfield. Kit is very frustrated by what seems to be an extremely slow speed, but the sailors are at ease with the pace. The crawling pace is made worse by the fact that Goodwife Cruff is so unfriendly and that she browbeats her family into being unfriendly as well. Captain Eaton is also distant, so it seems like John Holbrook is the only friendly person on board. As they talk, Kit learns of John’s earlier desires to go to Harvard and of how his family’s relative poverty led him to shift to...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 3
A man in a leather coat: he gives Nat and Kit directions to Matthew Wood’s house.
Rachel Wood: Kit’s aunt, her mother’s sister.
Judith Wood: Kit’s cousin, a proud and pretty girl.
Mercy Wood: Kit’s cousin, a kind but crippled girl.
Matthew Wood: Kit’s uncle, an upstanding colonial citizen and good, austere Puritan.
Kit follows Captain Eaton through the muddy streets of Wethersfield. Nat walks beside her, carrying two trunks on his shoulders, and two more sailors follow carrying more of her luggage. They find their way to Matthew Wood’s house on High Street. When they knock, a woman answers....
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 4
Matthew Wood goes off to work in the fields, and Rachel goes to visit Widow Brown, a local woman who is too poor and weak to care for herself. This leaves Kit alone with her cousins. Judith complains about the time her mother spends caring for the poor, while Mercy counters with a scriptural and emotional defense of the act before cutting off the argument to try to help make Kit feel at home. When Judith asks what is in each of the trunks, she is stunned to learn that they are all full of dresses of the sort that Kit is wearing, which she sees as very fancy. Kit in turn is surprised that her cousins do not have such clothes. Kit urges them to try on some of the dresses, and after an initial...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 5
Reverend Gershom Bulkeley: the Puritan minister at Wethersfield.
Mistress Ashby: one of the Woods’ neighbors.
William Ashby: Mistress Ashby’s son, soon to become a suitor for Kit.
On Sunday, Kit accompanies the Woods to the Meeting House for religious services. Her uncle is upset, first by Kit’s infrequent church attendance in the past and second by the fact that she has no other clothing to wear: the flashy clothes she owns seem disrespectful for a church service. Kit makes the situation worse by asking how far away the town is—when they’re standing in the middle of it.
Once at the Meeting House, the...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 6
The Woods host Reverend Bulkeley for dinner, a feast that the women of the house spend four days preparing. The minister clearly enjoys the meal. While he approves of all the women have done, he smiles each time he sees Judith and gives most of his attention to Kit. He is pleased to learn that Kit’s grandfather was knighted by King Charles and that he was (and Kit is) a loyal subject of King James. Kit does not understand what Bulkeley is implying, but her uncle steps in to insist that Kit’s allegiance to the king is not being disrupted by living with the Woods. The conversation turns into a political argument, with Bulkeley suggesting that if Matthew Wood stays so stubborn, it will lead to...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 7
When William Ashby comes to call on Kit, she does not know what she should say to him, and William does not make it any better by seeming to be content to sit silently in her presence. When Kit finally does start a conversation, it goes nowhere, and Kit is relieved when her aunt invites them to join the family and John Holbrook, who has just arrived for a visit. They have popcorn, and over the snack, William talks about the house he is planning to build. This slides into a discussion of the right to own property, and William surprises Kit by standing up to Matthew on the subject of politics. This again leads to a brief argument over what the colony should do in response to the current political...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 8
One June morning, Matthew sends Kit and Judith to weed an onion field in the south meadow. They are now dressed exactly alike, as Rachel and Mercy made Kit a calico dress that matches theirs. While the weather still seems chilly compared to what she knew in Barbados, Kit enjoys being outside as much as Judith does. She is also struck by the intense green sprawl of the Great Meadows, something she has never seen, and which is as impressive in its way as the ocean waters she had known and loved. The meadow seems to speak to her, and Kit wishes she could be there just by herself and soak in the peace.
When Judith asks what she is looking at, rather than share this inner feeling, Kit asks...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 9
Timothy Cook: a little boy in Mercy and Kit’s class.
Charity Hughes: a little girl in Mercy and Kit’s class.
Peter: the little boy in Mercy and Kit’s class who is beaten during the play of the Good Samaritan.
Mr. Eleazer Kimberley: the schoolmaster who interrupts the play.
Reverend John Woodbridge: the minister who accompanies Mr. Kimberley when he interrupts the play.
Kit is helping Mercy teach eleven of the younger children in the community how to read. Mercy is very patient, but Kit, while she likes the children and connects with them as she does not with their parents, gets bored by the droning...
(The entire section is 733 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 10
This chapter opens in the middle of a surprising conversation between Kit and Mercy: Kit went to see Mr. Kimberley and discussed the situation at the school and got her position back. When Mercy asks how Kit had the courage, she jokes about being bewitched, and this leads into a discussion of her meeting with Hannah Tupper. Kit’s Aunt Rachel advises Kit not to tell people about her meeting with Hannah, not because she is a witch but because she is a Quaker, and Quakers have caused trouble in all of the colonies. Some Quakers have been driven out of colonies, while others have even been hanged.
Kit is upset and decides that she cannot talk about Hannah with William, because he’d be...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 11
One midsummer day, while Kit and Mercy are teaching, Kit gets the sensation that someone is lurking outside the house. Kit finds flowers on the doorstep and spies Prudence Cruff hiding nearby. Prudence likes Kit and wishes she could come to school and learn to read and write, but she says she cannot because her mother thinks she is too stupid. Kit strikes a deal with Prudence to meet secretly in the meadows to teach her how to read. Kit brings a hornbook, which had been a gift from her grandfather, to give to Prudence, but when the younger girl says she can’t accept it, Kit decides Prudence needs to meet Hannah. Though Prudence is scared because she has heard that Hannah is a witch, the girl quickly...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 12
In the middle of August, “dame school” ends, and Kit and the girls shift to other tasks, such as making cider and harvesting onions and early apples and corn. This keeps Kit so busy that she does not have a chance to visit Hannah for a long time, until one afternoon when Rachel gives the girls time off after making candles. However, when Kit starts to head out the door to visit Hannah, Rachel asks her where she is going. When Kit does not answer, Rachel gives her a piece of apple tart to take with her, which tells Kit that her aunt knows she is going to go visit Hannah (and that she has known for some time), and even if Rachel does not approve, she is still moved by Kit’s good heart.
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 13
Later in autumn, the girls are talking, and Judith and Mercy are surprised to learn that Kit has never been to a husking bee. When Kit is dubious (it sounds like just more work to her), the girls describe it well enough to communicate some of their excitement to Kit, including mention of some mysterious “red ears” of corn. As the girls walk to gather the last of the corn in preparation for the husking bee, Judith shares with Kit her plan to marry John Holbrook—and her plan to “help” him ask her that evening. When Kit expresses doubt, Judith points Kit back toward William, telling her that he won’t wait forever.
Judith goes ahead as Kit visits Hannah briefly. On her way home,...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 14
When October arrives, Kit is completely unprepared for the beauty of the changing colors of the leaves. She also catches sight of something almost as striking: she sees her Uncle Matthew touching the soil in the garden and crumbling it through his fingers with reverence. Kit is baffled by why this image seems to hurt, but she is distracted by Judith’s call telling her a trading ship is coming into town. This makes her realize how much she would like to see the Dolphin—and Nat—again. The trading ship does turn out to be the Dolphin, and when the girls go watch it unload cargo, Nat comes over to see Kit and to give her a package for Hannah.
Kit suggests that Nat should...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 15
Captain Samuel Talcott: the Wethersfield citizen who leads—and calms—the crowd going to see Governor Andros, the new royal governor.
Governor Edmond Andros: the new royal governor.
This chapter opens on an angry argument: Matthew Wood and a number of men, including William Ashby, are in the company room discussing what they should do about the colony’s future. The women work in the next room, wondering what is going on. When Kit asks what William is doing there, Judith informs her that William has changed his mind and now agrees with Matthew about protecting the colony’s rights. Judith also remarks at how little Kit seems to listen...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 16
It is time for Thanksgiving, but there will be no official Thanksgiving this year, because the government does not recognize the right of Connecticut to declare its own formal holidays. Judith is disappointed, but her father says that it may be for the best because there was trouble on All Hallows Eve. Some sailors put jack-o’-lanterns in the windows of William Ashby’s house. Kit finds this funny (and it seems like Judith does too), but Matthew Wood considers these pranks “the devil’s invention” and “blasphemy.” That Thursday is the day when public punishment happens, and Kit goes to the stocks, where she finds Nat and a red-haired sailor she knows from her time on the Dolphin, as well...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 17
Not long after John Holbrook leaves, Judith gets sick. Soon sixteen of the younger inhabitants of Wethersfield are sick, and no one has any real solution: the sick have to make it through on their own. Kit gets sick, but only briefly, and is never as deeply ill as Judith or, when she falls sick, Mercy, who becomes very ill. Rachel sits with her daughters, helpless but doing her best to take care of them. Matthew works all day in the fields and then gives his wife what breaks he can. By the time Mercy has been sick for four days, she is very close to death. Her father does not work the fields that day but instead searches the Bible, and his conscience, for some guidance. Matthew Wood eventually reaches...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 18
A deacon from Matthew’s church and a town constable: both of these men accompany the Cruffs to make their accusation of witchcraft against Kit.
The constable’s wife: the woman who feeds Kit the evening she is locked up and speaks kindly to her.
Once she is dry and fed, Kit feels much better, and with her cousins both returning to health and Hannah rescued, the world seems a brighter place. That morning she thanks her uncle for his words protecting her the night before, and Matthew, in turn, thanks Kit for all she has done for his daughters during the past week of intense illness. Despite this moment of closeness, Kit cannot bring...
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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 19
The town selectmen: officials who help preside over the witchcraft trial.
The next morning, the constable’s wife brings Kit breakfast and helps Kit get cleaned up before she is taken to the inquiry. Once there, Kit must face the town selectmen, as well as Goodwife Cruff (her main accuser) and other town officials such as Captain Samuel Talcott, the magistrate to the court of Connecticut. Dr. Bulkeley and John Holbrook, both of whom have preached against witchcraft, are also present. Captain Talcott soon calls the inquiry to order and has the clerk read the charges against Kit. The charges quickly move from questions that Kit understands, such as...
(The entire section is 819 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 20
Thankful Peabody: a local woman who gets married the winter after Kit’s trial.
On the day of the first winter snowfall, Mercy insists on getting out of bed, though she is still weak. Mercy loves the snow for how beautiful it makes the world, but Kit is not sure she likes it. She likes the beauty but not how the snow shrinks and muffles the world. That night, once a team of oxen has pulled a plow to partially clear the streets, William comes to visit Kit for the first time since the arrest. The conversation again limps along, until William tries to council Kit to show more judgment in the future and not spend time with people like Hannah Tupper. This...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Chapter 21
One day in April, two marriages are announced. John Holbrook is going to marry Mercy Wood, and William Ashby is going to marry Judith Wood. The Wood house is very busy preparing for the weddings, which are planned for early May. John goes back to studying with Reverend Bulkeley and is clearer about how to disagree with his highly respected teacher. The weather finally improves enough for ships to start servicing the colony again, and this starts Kit thinking about Barbados and if she could sell her old dresses for enough money to buy passage home.
In mid-April, Kit walks through the town. She notes that as the heavy snows melted, the river flooded until the meadows were covered, which...
(The entire section is 553 words.)