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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Critical Overview

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Since its publication in 1958, The Witch of Blackbird Pond has been reviewed or commented on many times, almost always favorably. Critiques range from nearly generic praise of the novel as an example of the right thing to use to teach young readers, as was the case in Christopher de Vinck’s 1987 op-ed piece on the subject in The New York Times, to praise of the novel simply for its entertainment value, as was the case in the anonymous 2003 review of the novel’s reissue in the School Library Journal.

When critics get more specific, their praise touches on several aspects of the novel. Critics who have some historical distance from Witch, such as Steve Eikenbery, writing for the English Journal in 1992, praise the novel for the “prescience of the author.” Almost a decade earlier (in 1987), Mary-Helen Thuente also discussed the novel for the English Journal; Thuente set out to explain the novel’s power and success, and argued that these came from Speare’s ability to balance the demands of realistic historical fiction with aspects of the folktale, arguing that “the meticulously detailed historical background and the character study of the heroine enrich a young adult novel emotionally and intellectually, but Speare has also written a masterfully structured work of art with the symmetry, symbolism, and universality of the folktale.”

Most critics, though, emphasize the first two elements—historical realism and character development—in their commendation of the novel. This is certainly true in the main book-length study of Speare published; scholar of children’s literature Marilyn Fain Apseloff focuses there and singles out two more elements for specific praise. Apseloff argues that Speare is especially adept at building suspense through foreshadowing in both structure and dialogue and, more importantly, that Speare makes a point of emphasizing values in her work in ways that demonstrate “the strong religious foundation of her life.”

While praise has been by far the dominant response to The Witch of Blackbird Pond, it is not the only reaction. In their study of young adult fiction featuring disabled characters, Notes From a Different Drummer, Barbara Baskin and Karen Harris objected to Mercy’s character, finding her both “highly idealized and taken for granted.” The article “A Feminist Look at Children’s Books,” published in the Library Journal Supplement in 1971, also objected to the centrality of the romance plot, arguing that it diminishes Kit to have so much of the book revolve around, as the article put it, the question of “Whom shall Kit marry?”

The most critically nuanced treatment of the novel, though, is Sara L. Schwebel’s 2003 article “Historical Fiction and the Classroom: History and Myth in Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond.” Schwebel argues that the novel succeeds not just because of the accuracy of its historical detail, which Schwebel grants and praises, but because of how smoothly “Speare’s meticulous historical research fuses with powerful American myth,” particularly the myth of the American frontier as articulated by scholar Richard Slotkin. Schwebel convincingly shows how Kit is subtly anachronistic in ways that are emotionally resonant with the mid-century American ideal of what a good citizen should be.

Most recently, some of the commentary on Speare’s novel has moved in several different directions, one of which might have surprised the author. The first is that in recent years several adaptations have been produced. Mary Beth Hurt narrated a 2003 audiobook production to favorable reviews. Adaptations for readers’ theater are available online, and several children’s theaters around the United States have staged adaptations of the novel, including at least one using puppets. Reviews of these performances emphasize how modern Kit seems and how useful the play is for teaching purposes, specifically teaching adolescents about American history. Robert Nesti, discussing a 2002 production in Boston adapted for the staged by Y. York, accents that “the play’s agenda concerns tolerance for those who sit outside of society’s norms.”

This might come as a surprise to the citizens of Hartford, Connecticut, some of whom challenged the teaching of The Witch of Blackbird Pond because the novel, in their view, promotes witchcraft. Those defending the novel’s inclusion pointed out that no one in the work actually practices witchcraft, and that, in any case, belief in witchcraft was part of American culture at the time and so discussing it is simple historical accuracy.

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