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.
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,...
(The entire section is 1,855 words.)