38 pages • 1 hour readElizabeth George Speare
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Elizabeth George Speare was a well-known author of children’s books during the mid-twentieth century. Her second novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1957), earned her a Newbery Medal in 1959. She won another in 1962 for The Bronze Bow (1961), as well as a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1989 for her lifetime contribution to children’s literature. Her other novels include Calico Captive (1957) and The Sign of the Beaver (1984). Speare’s books are often found on the required reading list in American grade schools.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is categorized as Teen & Young Adult, US Colonial & Revolutionary Fiction, and Children’s Colonial US Historical Fiction. It is intended for readers aged 10 and older. This study guide and all its page citations are based on the Kindle edition of the novel. The plot is heavily influenced by the author’s own experience as a lifelong New Englander who also enjoyed traveling extensively.
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The novel is set in the American colony of Connecticut and covers a period of one year, from April 1687 to the beginning of May 1688. All the story’s events unfold in the small Puritan town of Wethersfield. The narrative technique is limited third person, told exclusively from the perspective of Kit Tyler. Kit’s point of view is central to a modern reader’s understanding of the Puritan world since her descriptions as an outsider make that world more accessible to us.
As the story opens, Kit has just left her home in sunny Barbados to live with her only remaining family in an austere atmosphere of Puritan religious ideology. Kit’s impulsive nature and colorful style of dress immediately put her at odds with her stern uncle and the rest of the local authorities. She is taught that the purpose of life is to work and pray in order to please God. When Kit befriends a reclusive Quaker woman living on the edge of town, she sets herself in opposition to the values of the community. In the process of describing Kit’s plight, the novel examines the themes of being caught between two worlds, the dangers of intolerance, and the value of listening to one’s heart.
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Sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler is sailing aboard the Dolphin from the island of Barbados to her new life in the colonies. Although Kit was surrounded by luxury in her grandfather’s home, his death has left her penniless. Kit must now go live with her Aunt Rachel’s family in the Puritan community of Wethersfield.
While still on the ship, Kit becomes friendly with Nat Eaton, the captain’s son. Both share a love of the sea and of reading. As the ship makes its way upriver to its final destination, Kit manages to run afoul of the Puritan code of behavior when she dives overboard to retrieve the doll of an unhappy little girl named Prudence Cruff. Prudence’s mother immediately suspects Kit of being a witch since ordinary women can’t swim. Kit is warned by Nat that the Puritans are a superstitious group and that she needs to learn how to fit into their society.
When Kit arrives on her family’s doorstep, her Aunt Rachel and cousins Mercy and Judith welcome her. Uncle Matthew is reserved and intolerant of her ways, but he grudgingly gives her a home under his roof. Over the course of the following weeks, Kit is appalled by the number of household chores that she must learn. On Sunday, the one day of rest, everyone spends four hours in church listening to bleak sermons. Kit sees a glimmer of hope when the town’s wealthiest citizen, William Ashby, courts her. He is building a fine new house for his intended bride. Kit finds William boring, but at least he would treat her as something more than a housemaid.
During the summer, Kit runs into trouble with the authorities while giving reading lessons to the local children. She tries to enliven their studies by having them act out scenes from the Bible, which scandalizes the local schoolmaster. Unable to find a way to fit in, Kit flees in tears to an open grassland on the outskirts of town. It is called the Great Meadow, and here she meets the wise old Quaker widow, Hannah Tupper. The freedom of the meadow and Hannah’s gentle advice help Kit reconnect with her own values. Kit goes back to her school duties and even finds a way to teach Prudence Cruff in secret at Hannah’s cottage. The cottage becomes a refuge for Kit and Prudence, as well as Nat, who has been Hannah’s friend for years.
When an illness sweeps over Wethersfield and many children fall ill, the citizens immediately accuse Hannah of witchcraft and burn down her home. Fortunately, Kit and Nat have already rescued Hannah and gotten her to safety. Kit herself isn’t so fortunate since Goodwife Cruff accuses her of casting a spell over Prudence.
Kit is brought before the town magistrate and charged with witchcraft, but Nat and Prudence come to her defense. Prudence proves she isn’t under a spell when she reads a passage from the Bible, and the charges against Kit are dropped. During the long, bleak winter that follows, Kit decides to return to Barbados for good. However, she has come to appreciate the people who are her friends and family in New England, too. At the same time, she realizes that she is in love with Nat and turns down William’s proposal. When Nat returns from a sailing voyage in the spring, he asks Kit to marry him, thus allowing her to enjoy sailing to the islands with him in the winter and maintaining her emotional ties in Wethersfield the rest of the year.
By Elizabeth George Speare