Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278
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...
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1450
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 from her position.
Weeping, Kit flees to the one place in the colony with which she has had an emotional connection: the Great Meadows near town. There she meets Hannah Tupper, the old woman who lives alone near Blackbird Pond. Somewhat odd in appearance due to her pale eyes and the scar on her forehead, Hannah provides Kit with a much-needed emotional refuge. This is the first pivot point in the novel, for their conversation gives Kit the confidence and guidance she needs to return to the community and negotiate another chance at teaching.
After that, Kit regularly visits Hannah. She must sneak out to do so because some consider Hannah a witch, while others simply distrust her for religious reasons. As a Quaker, Hannah does not share the Puritan faith that unites the rest of Wethersfield. In one of her visits to Hannah, Kit finds that she is not the only person to visit Hannah or to become fond of her: Nat Eaton, the son of the captain of the Dolphin, also comes to see Hannah when his ship is in port. The two become friends, and Kit is no longer so isolated.
Soon Kit makes another friend—Prudence Cruff, the lonely girl whose toy Kit had rescued. Prudence is lurking near the school and giving Kit presents, and when confronted, the girl admits that she’d love to learn how to read and write but her parents consider her too dim for school. Kit takes her to Hannah’s and teaches her there, which both further establishes an independent community for Kit and lets her have another way to feel useful in Wethersfield. At the same time, though, other developments are afoot in the Wood household and Wethersfield that will directly influence Kit.
Domestically, John Holbrook has been visiting the Woods regularly, often reading aloud to the family. This allows Judith’s attraction to him to build. Throughout this period, the larger community is in flux. From early in Kit’s time in Connecticut, her Uncle Matthew has been concerned with the royal governor’s actions regarding the colony’s charter, which Matthew sees as infringing on their established rights. Both of those situations come to a climax in the fall. Matthew, who has really been coming to the Wood household to spend time with Mercy, is finally ready to ask for her hand—but he phrases his words so badly that both Judith and her father jump to the conclusion that John has proposed to Judith. John is so stunned he cannot speak and allows the false impression to stand. Soon thereafter, the governor and his British troops come to Wethersfield. A meeting is held about the fate of the colony. Colonials steal the charter itself, to hide it safely away, but that does not keep Governor Andros from suspending the colony’s charter. Taken together, the two events leave both the Wood family and the Wethersfield community uncertain what will happen next. This is made worse when John Holbrook leaves town to join the local militia as a physician.
Matters are complicated further when a fever sweeps through the young people of the town. Judith falls ill, and Mercy lies close to death for a time. The townspeople decide the plague was caused by witchcraft and go off as a mob in the night to arrest Hannah Tupper. Kit slips out of the Wood house and runs to rescue Hannah as the mob burns her house. Kit gets Hannah to the Dolphin, where Nat takes her in, and then Kit returns home to find that Mercy’s fever has broken. It seems like things are getting better—until the townspeople arrive to charge Kit with witchcraft. They have evidence: her hornbook, found in the ashes of Hannah’s house.
Kit is locked up overnight and then stands trial as a witch. Many citizens of Wethersfield testify against her, and it looks very bad indeed for Kit until Nat Eaton appears with Prudence Cruff. The little girl testifies that Kit had been teaching her to read and write, and her public display of these skills forces her father to drop the charges. Kit goes free and, afterward, sees her situation clearly enough that she tells William not to court her any longer. Months pass, and news comes that John Holbrook has been captured by Indians. The whole family holds its breath through the winter months until John finally returns in March. Free, he declares his love for Mercy. This allows Judith to once again accept William Ashby’s attention, and wedding announcements for the two couples (William and Judith, John and Mercy) are posted in April.
Kit is the only one still uncertain of what life holds for her, often thinking of Nat Eaton and realizing that she loves him, while wondering if it is too late for her. It isn’t. He returns to Wethersfield in May, captain of his own ship and ready to propose.