The Witch of Blackbird Pond

I love reading seasonal books–books that offer an emotional reaction that suits whatever season we’re in. And this time of year, I have a list of favorite books that includes The Witch of Blackbird Pond. This book, which won the Newberry Award in 1959, was written by Elizabeth George Speare, one of only six children’s authors to win two Newberry awards during their lifetime. And despite the title, this story is not about witchcraft. It’s also not a book just for children. This book, which takes place in 1687 in Puritan New England, is about the power of love over fear and how empathy can conquer bigotry.

Elizabeth George Speare (1908 – 1994) was a native New Englander who was born in Melrose, Massachusetts and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Smith College. In 1930, she earned her Master’s Degree in English from Boston University. She taught English at a number of private high schools in Massachusetts before marrying Alden Speare and moving to Connecticut. Although a lifelong writer, she didn’t pursue publication until her two children entered middle school. Her first book, Calico Captive, (one of my favorites) was finally published in 1957. It was about a New Hampshire family kidnapped by Native Americans in 1754 and taken to Montreal, Quebec and held captive for years. Although this book sold well, it was her second novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, that won all sorts of awards, including the Newberry Medal.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about a young woman named Kit who must leave her home in Barbados (after her grandfather dies and a 50-year old man tries to marry her) and returns to Wethersfield, Connecticut to live with her aunt, uncle, and two cousins. It’s a tough transition for Kit. She had a lot of wealth and personal freedom (and plenty of sunshine) in Barbados and now finds herself living in a Puritan community with its stringent rules and hard life filled with daily chores and the constant fear of hunger and weather. Like many children’s books, this one carries themes that kids may intuit but that adults can understand at a deeper level. As Kit learns to live in this harsh environment, devoid of sunlight, heat, love, and even kindness, she is forced to face her own prejudices and fears while also teaching others to recognize theirs as well.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but this story takes place only a few years before the Salem Witchcraft Trials (1692), during a time when superstition and fear ran rampant in the face of the never-ending threat of hunger and death from the elements. When Kit first arrives, she is immediately accused of witchcraft because she can swim (she grew up on a Caribbean island!). She struggles to fit in with the harsh daily routines and unexpectedly meets a woman named Hannah who has been shunned by the community and lives along a nearby pond. Hannah has been forced to live on the outskirts of town, on Blackbird Pond, because she is a Quaker and refuses to attend the Sabbath services required of all the townsfolk. Because of this refusal, many believe she is a witch.

As Kit learns to navigate this new world, she tries to find a place for herself by teaching other girls in this town to read. She also forges a deep friendship with Nathaniel, the son of the captain of the Dolphin, one of the ships that routinely supply this small village. But when Nathaniel (who is falling in love with Kit) is expelled from the village for setting up lit jack-o-lanterns in the home of William Ashby (a rival for Kit’s affection), Kit and Hannah stand up for Nathaniel (as well as for other injustices like the closing of Kit’s school) and things go downhill from there. Both women are accused of witchcraft and must escape. While Hannah does escape on the Dolphin, Kit returns to her aunt’s house. You see, her cousin Mercy is lame and also being accused of witchcraft because she “suddenly” learned how to read (Kit taught her).

The book follows the trials of Kit, Hannah, Nathaniel, and Mercy, and along the way deals with very real and very current issues of bigotry, prejudice, the value of education and the force of love and forgiveness. While it begins in Mid-April, much of the book takes place in the fall with the stress of the impending winter causing people to worry about how they’re going to survive the winter. I guess that’s why this story has such a “Fall Feel” about it. The witches aren’t real (of course) but the fears of shorter days and a weak harvest are real and add to the overall tension of the story. Even though I adored this book when I was a kid, I can honestly say I love this book even more now that I’m an adult. I still worry for all of the characters–emotionally, physically, and spiritually– and the last few chapters are so tightly written that the pages fly by.

It’s no surprise that this book has been in continuous print ever since its first publication. The themes of coming home, growing up, finding love and acceptance, offering gratitude and forgiveness, and overcoming prejudices of all types are so universal, this book is considered one of the top 100 books for children. Elizabeth George Speare is consistently named one of America’s 100 most popular authors for children, and in 1989 she received the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Medal for her contributions to American children’s literature. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I do, and luckily it is now available in all formats, including e-book, paperback, and audio. And if you enjoy this story, leave a review. Even authors who are no longer with us need reviews!

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