Colonial Exploration and Expansion
Rather than being set in a single historical context, The Witch of Blackbird Pond might be better considered in light of several overlapping historical contexts, all of which would have shaped the world and characters of the novel in different ways. The first of these is that of colonial exploration and expansion. The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens in 1687 and is set in Connecticut Colony. This is less than 60 years after the famous landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and roughly 50 years since the River Colony was founded in 1636. The River Colony combined with two other colonies, Saybrook Colony (founded 1644) and New Haven Colony (founded 1662) to become Connecticut Colony. These factors combine to mean that older characters such as Hannah Tupper may well remember the origins of their community. The multiple origins of the colony also meant that though the colony is relatively new and relatively homogeneous in ethnicity and religion, it has known political change and historical diversity; these period farmers and craftsmen are politically savvy in many ways.
However, these northern colonies most often referred to in the novel (Massachusetts and Connecticut) were not just new political entities. They were very deeply devoted to living religious lives and as such should be viewed as one of several ongoing expressions of the Protestant Reformation. While popular unrest regarding the abuses within the Catholic church had existed for decades earlier, the traditional starting date for the Reformation is Martin Luther's dramatic nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in 1517. This started a wave of what was intended to be reform internal to the church and meant to bring decadent existing practices into line with the ideals articulated in the Bible. When this proved impossible, new religious denominations formed: Lutherans, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans all branched off, each making its own interpretation of the Bible and developing worship practices and codes of conduct based on those interpretations.
The Puritans who founded Connecticut had themselves rebelled against the Anglican church in the late sixteenth century. At first they were “merely” dissenters against England’s official church and were...
(The entire section is 992 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Topics for Further Study
- Review any of the available firsthand accounts written by inhabitants of the New England colonies. Examine what they give their attention to, as opposed to where Speare focuses her novel. Consider how closely these align, where and how they differ, and why.
- Kit is rather relaxed and accepting of slavery, as one might expect her to be, given that she grew up with the practice. Research period arguments against slavery. Which of these would be effective to a young girl like Kit from the seventeenth century?
- Hannah Tupper’s Quaker philosophy is mentioned but not explained in any real detail. Research Quaker history and philosophy until you can explain why it might threaten the Puritan worldview as it did.
- Several British colonies are mentioned in this novel. Research their origins and the nature of their economies. How differently are they organized, what are they trading, and how will these political and economic factors pull them in different directions? In other words, why wasn’t someplace like Barbados, which was very much part of the same trading network and extended British colonial society, part of the United States when the colonies rebelled?
- The Puritans emphasized a literal interpretation of the Bible and put great energy into reading and understanding it. Research the Puritan view of the world and the perspectives held by contemporary Christian denominations that emphasize strict interpretations of the Bible. How are their worldviews similar, and how do they differ?
- The Puritans of Wethersfield put a lot of energy and attention into policing the actions of community members. Their efforts ranged from fining Hannah Tupper for not attending worship services to hitting boys whose attention wandered during those services with sticks. Since that time, such an active emphasis on policing community virtue has fallen away. Research and consider that change. When did attitudes toward such activity change? Were they the same at the time of the American Revolution?
What Do I Read Next?
- Like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1952) dramatizes the New England witch trials. Also like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Crucible was written in the 1950s, when the McCarthy anti-Communist “witch hunts” occurred.
- Calico Captive (1957), another of Elizabeth George Speare’s novels for young adults, follows young Miriam Willard and her family when they are captured by Indians.
- Elizabeth George Speare published The Bronze Bow in 1961, and it won her a second Newbery Award the following year. Like her other historical novels, this features a young protagonist trying to fit into a community in flux. However, this one leaves Speare’s favorite setting of early New England behind: it is set in the time and place of Jesus, and deals with the period’s religious and political upheaval.
- John Holbrook reads Anne Bradstreet’s poems aloud to the Wood family one evening. Bradstreet was one of the first major American writers and was the first major American poet. Her works will give glimpses into the mind of a Puritan woman from that period.
- Jerry Spinelli’s young adult novel Stargirl (2000) has a contemporary setting, but it also features an unconventional heroine who is shunned by her community. Like Kit, Stargirl is compassionate to those whom the community would have her ignore, has magical powers attributed to her, and is shunned for her actions.
- If you can find some of them, the works of Cotton Mather will give another useful point of view on the Puritan mind. A major Puritan religious leader, Mather wrote several hundred books and pamphlets, including some against witchcraft, and was friends with some of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials.
- William Bradford sailed over on the Mayflower and was one of the leaders of the colony at Plymouth. He kept diaries, and his book History of Plymouth Plantation gives a firsthand account of the first decades of life in colonial New England.
- This New Land by G. Clifton Wisler (1987) is another fictional account written for young adults focusing on a child protagonist (narrator Richard Woodley is 12), and like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, This New Land follows the Pilgrims as they came over on the Mayflower.
- Beyond the Burning Time (1996) by Katherine Lasky is another novel for young readers about the seventeenth-century witchcraft scares. This one focuses on an even younger protagonist than Kit; Mary, age 12, goes through the witch scare in Massachusetts.
Questions and Answers: Characters and Origins
1. What happened to Kit’s parents?
2. Who does Rachel Wood think Kit is when they first meet?
3. Who is the first person from Wethersfield to speak to Kit?
4. What brought Hannah to Wethersfield?
5. Kit’s grandfather was rich. Why is Kit poor?
1. Kit’s parents died when she was very young. They had been married for only three years when they sailed to Antigua and drowned. After that, Kit’s grandfather raised her.
2. Rachel Wood thinks Kit is Margaret (Kit’s mother/Rachel’s sister). This reaction shows how much Kit looks like her mother but also how much Rachel misses her sister....
(The entire section is 215 words.)
Questions and Answers: Goals and Motivations
1. Why is John Holbrook coming to Wethersfield?
2. Why do the Woods wish Kit were a boy when she comes to live with them?
3. Why does Kit jump into the water as the Dolphin sails into Saybrook Harbor?
4. What motivates Matthew Wood to accept Kit into his home?
5. Why does William Ashby want to marry Kit?
1. John Holbrook is coming to Wethersfield to study with Dr. Bulkeley, who is widely known as an accomplished minister. John has a deep love of religious learning, which he first yearned to follow to Harvard, but his family was too poor.
2. On a practical level, the Woods wish Kit were a boy...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
Questions and Answers: Similarities and Differences
1. How are Nat Eaton and William Ashby similar and different?
2. How are Mercy and Kit similar and different?
3. How do the men’s positions regarding the colonial charter differ?
4. How are Hannah and Kit similar and different?
5. In what ways was Kit’s beloved Barbados superior to Connecticut, and how is Connecticut similar (in her mind)?
1. Nat Eaton and William Ashby are alike in many ways. On the most basic level, they are both young men who are coming into their manhood at a time when the colonies are maturing as communities. The two young men must therefore act not just for themselves but as...
(The entire section is 722 words.)
Questions and Answers: Key Details
1. What happens at the husking bee?
2. How and why does John agree to marry Judith?
3. Why is Kit dismissed from teaching “dame school”?
4. John and Mercy never discuss their love. How does Kit learn of it?
5. Why did Matthew Wood banish Dr. Bulkeley from his home, and what made Wood change his mind?
1. The husking bee is a way to make some of the work of the community into shared fun. It is a custom that if one of the young people finds a red ear of corn, he or she can “claim a forfeit” (i.e., choose a prize). This is an excuse for single young men and women to kiss in public without getting in...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Questions and Answers: Witchcraft!
1. What is the first reason anyone thinks Kit might be a witch?
2. Why do the citizens of Wethersfield think Hannah Tupper is a witch?
3. How does the mob say Hannah escaped them?
4. How are the accusations of witchcraft against Kit finally disproved?
5. Who does Nat say is the real witch of Blackbird Pond?
1. The passengers on the Dolphin think Kit might be a witch because she can swim. That is one of the marks of witches (that they float), and for a woman to swim is so uncommon that it is immediately suspect.
2. The citizens of Wethersfield actually have many reasons to think Hannah is a...
(The entire section is 351 words.)
Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. 1991. Elizabeth George Speare. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 541. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.
Bartlett, Robert M. 1978. The faith of the Pilgrims: An American heritage. New York: United Church Press.
Beetz, Kirk H. 1990. Beacham’s guide to literature for young adults. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing.
Codgill, Oline H. 2003. Showtime. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 17, 35.
Langdon, William Chauncy. 1937. Everyday things in American life, 1607-1776. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Polk, William R. 2006. The birth of America: From before...
(The entire section is 386 words.)