Essays and Criticism
Witchy Girls and Witchy Women: Training for Domesticity in Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond
On a morning in mid-April 1697, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut river and into Seabrook harbor.
So begins Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Although generally understood as historical romance, the novel could as easily open with “once upon a time in a land far, far away” for its similarity to the sort of myths constitutive of many fairy tales.1 In its skeleton form, the fairy tale often popular with young girls offers an orphaned heroine who embarks upon a journey and experiences debasement, danger, or a test. Also in these stories a nurturing spirit guides the heroine through her difficulties, and, in contrast to such goodness, an unattractive or ugly character representing cruelty or evil endangers her by means of trickery or falseness. Other motifs might include a mysterious, enchanted forest, birds and other animals, and multiples of threes, or the number seven. However, the part of the fairy tale that most delights its young (and adult) female audience is the prince charming with whom the heroine will live happily ever after.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond incorporates many of these elements. Kit Tyler spends her first sixteen years pampered and privileged in the lush beauty of Barbados, but upon the death of her beloved grandfather travels across an ocean to begin a new life in the stark, Puritan community of Wethersfield, Connecticut, “just a narrow, sandy stretch of shoreline, a few piles sunk in the river with a rough planking for a platform” Arriving with “seven small trunks,” Kit’s new family consists of three women—her once-beautiful Aunt Rachel; her somewhat jealous but lovely cousin Judith; and her other cousin Mercy, kind and forever patient—as well as the patriarchal head, Uncle Matthew, stern yet ultimately admirable. Not unlike Cinderella or Snow White, Kit undergoes the drudgery of household work, and also similar to those heroines Kit endures mistreatment—not by a cruel stepmother, however, but from the harsh glances of the intolerant and suspicious Goodwife Cruff. The immediate eponym of the novel is Hannah, the misunderstood Quaker “witch” who, like a fairy godmother, gives Kit the wisdom and strength to conform to the expectations of her new community while maintaining the vitality of her own identity. And just as the witch in this novel is good rather than evil, so the Great Meadow around her enchants Kit with a magic that soothes her troubled spirit; as Hannah explains, the Meadows “speak” to Kit in a special, perhaps spiritual, way. Birds, cats, and goats play a special role in the story, as does the device of “the test,” which occurs when Kit selflessly nurses her cousins through life-threatening illness. As the story gains in tension, Kit encounters dangers when she rescues Hannah during a witch hunt, only to find herself accused of being a witch. And then, as with all fairy tales of this genre, the novel progresses inexorably to its happy conclusion, Kit’s realization that she loves Nat Turner, who, as son of the captain of the Dolphin, “move[s] lightly and confidently . . . [with] a bounce in his step that matche[s] the laughter in his eyes.” Striding into the courtroom with crucial evidence, Nat saves Kit from the pain and humiliation of being labeled a witch. With new values and wisdom, on the final page of the novel Kit is rewarded with marriage to “prince Nat,” who assures Kit that their life together on Nat’s new ketch will be “for keeps.”
However, if this novel embraces the fairy tale, it also incorporates patterns of the American frontier myth. In her analysis of the frontier myth in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Sara L. Schwebel (2003) uses Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence as a lens to read Kit’s coming-of-age story. In his revision of an earlier frontier myth defined by Frederick Turner, Slotkin says that for early colonists, “the trial of living among Indians . . . facilitated colonists’ spiritual awakening by forcing them to confront the dark corners of their mind” in the form of psychological conflict (quoted in Schwebel 2003, p. 199). The resulting myth, says Schwebel, “comprises . . . separation from settled community [and] regression into the wilderness.” Both “physical and economic,” this regression “proves character building,” which allows the hero to emerge both triumphant and cleansed of his faults, with that rugged character we like to call “American” that enables him to build his fortune for the future (p. 198).
This reading of the novel transforms but does not negate understanding it as a fairy tale. To begin with, the frontier myth calls attention to the meaning and importance of what in the novel constitutes “civilized.” On the Dolphin that carries Kit from the lush Barbados to Wethersfield, John Holbrook describes Kit’s exotic origins as “heathen,” infuriating Kit, who protests, “’Tis no heathen island. ’Tis as civilized as England, with a famous town and fine streets and shops.” For Kit, Wethersfield is “heathen,” not in terms of being Godless but uncivilized; it is, in the terms Slotkin provides, a “savage” environment (in Schwebel 2003). Indeed, on her first night Kit hears a wolf howling in the distance, and the fear of Indian attack exacerbates her sense—and the readers’—of the wilderness around her. The danger of her environment drives the plot forward when John joins the militia to fight the Indians, is captured, and returns a new man from his ordeal. Indeed, at moments Kit herself seems to be a prisoner of the Puritan household of Mathew Woods—symbolically, she lives in the “woods,” forced to live a life that is as primitive as it is demeaning. “You will fit yourself to our ways,” Uncle Matthew tells his niece, a phrase that echoes the experiences recorded in captivity narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her muscles ache from her work, she is criticized by Judith and others for her awkwardness and the trouble she causes, and she longs for the warmth of her island home.
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Puritan Parallels: The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Late-1950s America
The title of Speare’s novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond can be interpreted in two ways. Ostensibly, it refers to the aged Hannah Tupper, who lives in a kind of localized exile because of suspicions of witchcraft. As the wily, self-possessed sailor Nat points out, however, it also applies to the young heroine Kit, who earns a similar reputation upon her arrival in the Puritan town of Wethersfield. The book itself leads a similar double life. Its esteemed reputation is that of a historical romance for young-adult audiences. Yet underneath Kit’s struggles with her family, Wethersfield society, and several young men who court her is a parable about change. Written in 1958, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond serves as a parallel for late-1950s America, when an era of staid conservatism was about to give way to a complete cultural revolution. The Puritan America depicted in the novel and the conservative America of the time in which the book was written align in terms of gender roles, race, and class structure. Furthermore, the rebellious Kit represents the emerging counterculture of the 1960s that would forever change the face of the country.
Gender roles play an important part in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Kit quickly learns that her rights and responsibilities are restricted to the domestic sphere. Along with her aunt Rachel and cousins Judith and Mercy, Kit cooks, cleans, makes clothing, and teaches little ones at the Dame School. On her first day in Wethersfield, she learns that she must submit to her Uncle Matthew’s will when he forbids her from sharing her flashy dresses with her cousins. In addition, the institution of marriage is the foundation for female personhood in this society. Kit learns early in the story that the only way to free herself from her strict uncle is to agree to marry William Ashby. It does not matter that William—though steady, intelligent, and good—ignites little passion in Kit. His interest in Kit dictates that she should accept his offer of marriage.
1950s America placed women in a similar position. Men were still the primary source of income in most households. Women were expected to manage all areas connected to the home and children. Maternal pop icons like June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson defined the ideal woman in this era. It would take another two decades for feminism and women’s rights movements to advance alternative notions of what it meant to be a woman.
Race also creates a parallel between these two seemingly disparate worlds. Much of Kit’s initial indignation at her menial task work in the Wood home stems from her belief that such work should be performed by slaves. Whether her attitude is merely innocently overentitled or overtly racist, it highlights the different roles that African and Caribbean Americans held in this period. In the absence of people of color in Wethersfield, the ostracized Quaker Hannah Tupper fulfills the role of “other” in the Puritan town. Hannah’s isolated existence, along with her exclusion from community events and religious gatherings, mirrors the segregation that defined race relations in the 1950s. Separate restrooms, drinking fountains, and other public facilities kept Americans of color apart from their white counterparts. In both cases, part of the way the society defined itself was based on who was and was not allowed to belong.
This exclusivity also existed in political spheres and class structures. The seaman Nat is deliberately presented as a contrast to William Ashby along the lines of class. As a mere boatman, he is obviously a less respectable suitor to Kit than the wealthy William. Though many of the residents of Wethersfield are of average to low...
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