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Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

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Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Post by diamondlil » Thu August 28th, 2008, 10:20 am

Kit Tyler is marked by suspicion and disapproval from the moment she arrives on the shores of Connecticut in 1687, far from her beloved home on the island of Barbados. Her unconventional background and high-spirited ways immediately clash with the Puritannical lifestyle of her uncle's household, and she despairs of ever truly fitting in. When Kit meets Hannah Tupper, she is sure she has found a friend at last. But the locals believe that the old woman is a witch, and witches must be burned.
I have to confess that I don't remember even hearing about this book until it was Book of the Month at a website I sometimes read. Obviously, I am a bit behind, but I guess that is what happens when I have to continually juggle due dates for all of the library books I have out I wasn't going to give it a go, but I am so glad that I did, because this book had me completely enthralled, to the point where I didn't want to read certain bits because I was afraid of what was going to happen, but then again I didn't really want to put it down either!

The novel begins on board the ship that is bringing young Kit Tyler to a new life with her aunt and uncle who follow the Puritan lifestyle. That lifestyle is a stark contrast to the life that she was used to in the tropical climes of Barbados, where she lived in luxury with her overspending grandfather. When he dies she has no choice but to seek a new life. Even whilst still on the boat, Kit stands out, and creates an enemy for herself when she dives into the water to swim after a young girl's doll. Straight away, she comes under suspicion because everyone knows that only witches float.

When Kit arrives in her new town, she struggles to fit in both within her family and the town. She does however attract the attention of one of the more eligible young men in town, but even their courtship is stilted and somewhat sterile. It is only when Kit befriends an old Quaker woman, Hannah Tupper who lives out near Blackbird Pond, that Kit truly finds friendship, but at what cost? In an era of superstition and fear, Hannah has longed been branded a witch.

The edition that I read was a Collins Modern Classics and has an afterword by Jane Yolen where she says:
It amazes me how much of a story is told in such a compressed amount of pages. For a modern historical novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is quite short. At the time it was written, most children's novels were deemed necessarily short. But think how much is crammed into it: a girl's quest; a historical lesson about some of the things that finally led to the American Revolution; information about sailing ships, weaving, colonial cooking, clothing, religious matters of the day, colonial punishments and the drudgery of Puritan daily life. Plus romance, loss, suspicion, anger, fear secrets, friendships and a sense of belonging - to a land, a family, a love and to one's own self. I have to marvel at that compression, the compact poetry of it, and wish that more writers today had that kind of precision and ability to be so beautifully concise.

I couldn't agree more! I thoroughly enjoyed this trip back through time to colonial Connecticut, and I was definitely moved throughout the novel. I believe that this book won The Newbery Award back in 1958, and despite the length of time that has passed since it was first published, the strength of the writing and the story have not been diminished or aged at all.

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Post by Leyland » Thu August 28th, 2008, 2:02 pm

I always think of Kit as the classic fish out of water that should have literally stayed out of the water. She simply comes from another, warmer more freely thinking environment and since she has been raised to think and act independently, she can’t help but take action when she feels it’s necessary. Her actions are generally for the good and not from a sense of superiority although she has great difficulty understanding why the Connecticut town folk think, dress and judge the way they do.

One of the most important aspects of this novel to me is Speare’s ability to show so cleanly three different social and religious backgrounds from several characters’ POV in such a way that the reader understands and feel sympathy for all of them.

The Puritan lifestyle and their beliefs as well as that of the Friends/Quakers are depicted so well for me through the voices of Mercy Wood and her father Matthew and also through Hannah Tupper’s actions and loving kindness. Mercy is soft yet so very strong in her faith and Matthew is seemingly harsh and unyielding as he demands certain obedience from his family, but would clearly give his life for them.

Kit can read the Bible and knows that wisdom is to be found there, but seems to have a more ‘high church’ background that didn’t permeate every aspect of her existence. Her silk clothes are completely unsuitable for the sober Puritan lifestyle and the author shows such a strong analogy for this bright colorful bird caged among the crows and ravens. Yet she is young and sympathetic enough to put away her former belongings to try to blend in with the Wood family’s ways. She just truly doesn’t belong.

Kit does what she believes is right for each individual that requires her aid, such as teaching young Prudence and provisioning Hannah against others’ express instructions. I don’t think Kit could have lived any other way. She is an admirable young character and her ‘coming of age’ is a wonderful story. It doesn’t get much better. I probably read this for the first time in the mid 70’s and have read it countless times since then.

As a side note: Speare did get the level of historical detail just right as she moves from scene to scene so concisely. Clothing, food, teaching tools, building materials (the exact number of glass window panes in a new house!), and social activities (finding the red ear of corn) to name a few are perfectly balanced.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu August 28th, 2008, 5:13 pm

You are so right, Leyland! Speare works her details into the plot so seamlessly that you learn on 'the edge of your seat'. In the book 'the Sign of the Beaver' all these details are the essence of the plot -- she doesn't put IN the details, the lives of her characters are ABOUT the details. and they are pretty gripping when those details mean the difference between life and death. (Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, while not HF, has the same compelling force.)

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