illustration of a woman in a black dress with long black hair swimming down through the water toward a smaller human figure

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare

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Summary and Analysis: Chapter 17

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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 some decision, but as he dresses to act on it, Reverend Bulkeley knocks on the door. Bulkeley starts to insist on being let in, since Matthew had banished him from the Wood home due to their political arguments, but it turns out that Matthew was just heading out the door to get him. Bulkeley tries a new remedy that includes a poultice of cooked onions. After applying many poultices and training Rachel in how to apply them, Bulkeley has to leave to tend to other sick people.

Just after he leaves, an angry mob comes to the door to enlist Matthew Wood’s help. They think that the illness that spread through the town has supernatural origins and, specifically, that the “Quaker woman” living near Blackbird Pond is the witch who is responsible. Many people are shouting suggestions and accusations, and one tells Mathew that Kit is also somehow responsible. Once they leave, Kit asks her uncle what they will do to Hannah. He says that they will take her to trial, but he cannot answer Kit’s questions about what the mob might do to Hannah before the trial. As a result, when the family goes to bed, Kit cannot sleep.

Kit gets up, dresses, and goes to the meadows to rescue Hannah. Hannah is disoriented in the dark and calls out for her long dead husband, Thomas. Kit just manages to get Hannah out of the house before the mob arrives. As Kit leads Hannah through the bog, the mob sets her beloved house on fire. Kit keeps Hannah safe through the long hours of the night, until, like a miracle, the Dolphin sails up. Kit swims out to the ship, where the sailors “rescue” and recognize her. Once Kit sees Nat, she gets him to take Hannah on board and take care of her. Nat asks Kit to come with them—anywhere she wants, including her old home in the West Indies—but Kit refuses. Nat thinks it is because she is going to marry William, but Kit says it is because she has to take care of Mercy, who is so ill. The ship sails away, and when Kit gets home, she finds that Mercy’s fever has broken: she is going to survive and get better.

This is the pivotal chapter for Kit. The other women in the Wood family are immobilized by illness, and, strictly speaking, it is Kit’s duty to stay there in case the girls need her. Kit has also been sick and is still weak from the illness—but when she hears that the mob is after Hannah, Kit moves quickly to save her friend, thus displaying again how out of place she is in the colony: a woman acting alone and independently, in the dark, is as unheard of as one living alone by the pond, as Hannah does. But so great is Kit’s love for Hannah that she makes her way in the darkness to save her.

The chapter also shows the dark side of Puritanism in all its ugliness. Matthew still embodies the good side—he is rigid but lives by the law and his conscience. The mob, though, sets out to find a scapegoat for the fever that has spread through the community. Since Kit is aware of the threat and what the mob might do, it makes her act all the braver. From this point on, she stops moving toward being a fully integrated part of the community and instead is on her way toward independence.

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