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....
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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?
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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.
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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.
3. The first person from Wethersfield who speaks to Kit is Goodwife Cruff, who tells Kit aboard the Dolphin that she must be crazy.
4. Hannah and Thomas Tupper were run out of Massachusetts because they were Quakers. They settled in Wethersfield because Thomas was from Kent, England, and Wethersfield reminded him of Kent.
5. Kit’s grandfather had indeed been rich. He had owned a substantial plantation, but then he was sick for many years. While he was weak, he trusted the wrong man, his overseer Bryant. Bryant stole from him, breaking his heart and driving him into debt. Once he died, Kit had to sell everything to pay off those debts.
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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 because Matthew Wood needs the help on the farm. On the emotional level, it is implied that Matthew and Rachel miss their deceased boy.
3. Kit jumps into the water to save the wooden toy Prudence Cruff had dropped. You might also say, though, that she jumps into the water because she does not think much of it—where she is from the water is warm and everyone can swim— and because she is kind-hearted.
4. Duty. Kit is family, and Matthew (and all good members of his community) believed that family was a duty one must support. He accepts her despite his own wishes, despite the costs, and despite the inconvenience. Given Kit’s politics, her slave-owning background, and her flashy clothing, she might well have seemed quite a burden, and even a risk of sin, but Matthew’s duty trumped all of this.
5. Curiously, the book never really says. It is clear that he is struck by Kit’s colorful appearance the first time they meet and that he is drawn to her, but he never really does accept her. In fact, in chapter 20, William says that he thought Kit would someday forget her old ways. He does not love how she acts, and he does not seem to care about what she thinks; perhaps his is simply a physical and social love?
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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 representatives of different aspects of colonial society. Both are also very practical, seeking their goals and working toward them, even if that means risk. Of course, they are also alike in that they both want to marry Kit.
They differ in character, affiliation, and approach to life. While William is willing to be daring for a good cause (as when he helps steal and hide the charter), he is mostly conservative by nature. William would be happiest simply upholding the norms and values of his community. By contrast, Nat is far more adventurous, in both public ways and private. He is willing to “illuminate” William’s house for no more benefit than personal satisfaction, and he returns to help Kit even when it is against the law. He also helps Hannah though no one knows it except Hannah. Nat follows his heart; William lets his heart be dictated to.
2. Mercy and Kit are alike in that they are both young women who are somewhat out of place in their own homes. However, Kit is out of place because she was raised elsewhere and because her character is outgoing; Mercy is out of place because her childhood illness crippled her, leaving her unable to easily enter into many of the town’s communal activities.
They are also alike in that they appreciate John Holbrook as a person, that they enjoy teaching the young, and that they have secrets they cannot speak for social reasons: Mercy cannot voice her love for John; Kit cannot voice her love for Hannah.
They are different, most of all, though, in their characters. Mercy is the essence of Christian love: she is patient, accepting, and charitable. Kit is fiery. She loves as intensely as Mercy does but takes discipline less well.
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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 trouble.
2. John says that he wants to talk to Judith’s father about something, and Judith jumps to conclusions. She assumes he is asking for her hand in marriage and essentially throws herself on him and makes a public declaration. When Matthew joins in and gives his permission and congratulations, John is too embarrassed and too good-hearted to correct people. It seems like he would have let himself get railroaded into marrying the wrong woman. In fact, being captured by Indians is the only way John gets out of marrying Judith!
3. Kit is dismissed for engaging in “play-acting.” The Puritans saw drama as innately sinful and thought children needed to be disciplined into proper behavior.
4. John usually reads the Bible aloud when he visits the Wood family home, but one evening he reads the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, a colonial poet who writes eloquently of love. Kit happens to look at Mercy while John is reading, and her face is filled with love. Though neither member of the couple speak at that time, Kit is absolutely certain of Mercy’s love, and later, the night of the husking bee, John confirms that he loves Mercy equally and always has.
5. Wood banished the minister because of their political differences and because the minister had essentially preached to him about those political differences in his (Matthew’s) own home. This was both irritating and insulting, and it may have seemed a bit of a political threat to Matthew Wood.
He changes his mind when Mercy falls deeply ill. He in fact is ready to go get the learned minister when Bulkeley arrives on his own with a remedy that helps save Mercy’s...
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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 witch, though some of them are better than others. The best reason, of course, is that they are people of faith, and their religion tells them they are engaged in an ongoing war between good and evil. When good things happen, that’s the Lord’s will, and when bad things happen, such as the illness that ran through the community, that’s the devil’s doing. They must stand up for good, and witches are part of the forces for evil.
What’s more, it was common during this period for civilized nations to persecute witches; within a century before the book was set, the king of England had published a book on the subject. Hannah was also marked (as witches were said to be) and lived apart from the community, refusing to take part in local religious services.
3. The mob sees Hannah’s yellow cat flash by in the night, and they say that it was carrying a mouse in its mouth … a mouse that was secretly Hannah Tupper in a magically changed form!
4. Nothing Kit says makes any difference in her own defense, and it is only when the young and trembling Prudence Cruff testifies that the community drops its accusations. Specifically, it is when Prudence proves that she can read and write.
5. Kit is the real witch of Blackbird Pond. That is why Nat names his ship after her: she “cast a spell” on him and transformed his heart.
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The events of the tale begin in April 1687 and continue through the following spring. Wethersfield, the principal scene of the action, is several miles south of Hartford, Connecticut, near the banks of the Connecticut River. Historically, this is the time of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts.
The opening chapter introduces the cultural contrasts between the warm, friendly island life of Barbados and the cold Puritan society of Connecticut, 1486 The Witch of Blackbird Pond where religion rules everything from parties and husking bees to courting. Kit sees constant reminders—"a pillory, a whipping post and stocks"—of the oppressiveness of Puritan New England. She must put away her colorful dresses brought from Barbados and wear the drab colors that are standard in Wethersfield. Before coming to America, she swam in the warm Caribbean waters; now she finds that swimming in New England is suspect and that the waters are as chilling as the society. Young people, Kit discovers, are to be seen and not heard in Puritan society, which is based on the premise that punishments are given in this world, rewards in the next world. The New England setting contrasts with Kit's former life and immediately introduces conflict into the story.
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One of Speare's outstanding achievements as a writer is her ability to create a strong sense of place. In The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the contrast between Barbados and New England highlights the distinct characteristics of the Connecticut setting. Speare sets up this contrast in the novel's opening chapter: "The bleak line of shore surrounding the gray harbor was a disheartening contrast to the shimmering green and white that fringed the turquoise bay of Barbados..." Throughout the novel, Speare associates drab colors, particularly gray and black, with Kit's new home, while she describes Barbados with colorful imagery.
The books valued by residents of each locale further underscore the differences between Barbados and New England. In Barbados Kit was encouraged to read imaginative works of poetry and drama, including works by William Shakespeare, Thomas Otway, and John Dryden. The Wethersfield colonists, on the other hand, shun writing that seems purely imaginative and emphasize books that establish codes of behavior, such as the Bible and John Bunyan's allegory Pilgrim's Progress. The Accidence is also considered worthwhile reading in Wethersfield for the rules of grammar that it sets forth. Speare uses these differences in reading preferences to create a sense of the social values of the two locales.
Wethersfield and Barbados represent the two sides of Kit's personality. When the novel begins, she has already developed...
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There is little in The Witch of Blackbird Pond that is likely to offend readers, though one reviewer has taken issue with the suggestion at the novel's end that Nat and Kit will marry, calling this conclusion a "sexist compromise." But Speare is writing about an age where even the most independent young women had extremely limited options available to them, and so it would be difficult for her to suggest another future for Kit without sacrificing the novel's historical authenticity. Furthermore, Speare implicitly criticizes the treatment of women in seventeenth-century New England by showing how charges of witchcraft were used to suppress independent women, who were perceived as a threat. The kind Hannah Tupper is persecuted not only because she is an independent woman, but because of her Quaker faith, and in this sense Speare's novel also criticizes intolerance of religious differences.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Speare load the first chapter with so many important characters? Are all the principal characters well drawn?
2. Does Kit react to situations the same way that a sixteen-year-old today would?
3. What might readers conclude about outcasts in this Puritan society? About the society's tolerance? How significant is group pressure in Puritan society?
4. What moral questions arise from the book?
5. What significance do you find in the characters' names?
6. What tension exists between Kit and Nat? Cite examples of increasing and diminishing tension.
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Explain Kit's process of maturation in the novel.
2. Is Speare's description of the Puritan society in New England historically accurate? What evidence can you find to support or refute its accuracy?
3. Hannah Tupper is a Quaker. Research and report on the Society of Friends, its beliefs, and its establishment in America. Does Hannah live up to Quaker ideals?
4. What was the political situation of the colonies in relation to England in 1687? Discover what the major political issues were and how each side viewed them.
5. "People are afraid of things they don't understand" is one of the themes of the book. Cite situations in the novel where this idea appears.
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For Further Reference
Buskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped. New York: Bowker, 1977. Briefly treats the character of Mercy and her handicap.
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973. Contains a brief sketch of Speare's life followed by her own remarks about her work.
Cosgrave, Mary Silvia. "Elizabeth George Speare—Newbery Award Winner." Library Journal 84 (April 15, 1959): 1291-1292. Brief biographical and critical commentary.
"A Feminist Look at Children's Books." Library Journal Supplement 17 (January 1971): 19-24. Charges that the novel is a "cop out" because a "sexist compromise is made" by setting up the marriage between Kit and Nat at the end of the novel.
Kingman, Lee, ed. Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965. Boston: Horn Book, 1965. Reprints Speare's Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Witch of Blackbird Pond as well as biographical commentary on Speare by Helen Reeder Cross. 1490 The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1983. Includes a bibliography of Speare's writings and brief critical commentary.
Peterson, Linda Kauffman, and Marilyn Leathers Solt. Newbery and Caldecott Medal and Honor Books: An Annotated Bibliography. Boston: Hall,...
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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 Columbus to the revolution. New York: HarperCollins.
Schwebel, Sara L. 2003. Historical fiction and the classroom: Elizabeth George Speare’s The witch of blackbird pond. Children’s Literature in Education 34(3): 195-218.
Sullivan, Robert. 1994. Elizabeth G. Speare, 84, author of children’s historical novels. New York Times, November 16, D24.
Speare, Elizabeth George. 1958. The witch of blackbird pond. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Cheatham, Bertha M., and Cohen, Andrew. 1989. Speare given Wilder Medal. School Library Journal 35(6): 13-14. This article reflects on Elizabeth George Speare’s body of work on the occasion of her receiving a major award. Anita Silver, editor of the Hornbook, comments on how Speare’s work was marked by historical accuracy and a feeling for both setting and character.
McElmeel, Sharron L. 1999. 100 most popular children’s authors: Biographical sketches and bibliographies. Portsmouth, NH: Libraries Unlimited. This reference work gives a brief overview of Speare’s life and career.
Nesti, Robert. 2002. Theater review: Roots of prejudice explored at Wheelock’s “Blackbird Pond.” Boston Herald, November 20, 59. This review discusses a contemporary stage adaptation of the novel.
Thuente, Mary-Helen. 1985. Beyond historical fiction: Speare’s The witch of blackbird pond. English Journal 74(6): 50-55. Thuente argues that the novel succeeds so well because of Speare’s skill in blending realistic fiction with the symbolic structures of the folktale.
Weir, William. 2002. Stirring up lively debate:...
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