The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) is a classic work of young adult historical fiction. The novel tells the story of Katherine “Kit” Tyler, a young orphan who, in 1687, travels from the tropical island of Barbados to the stark Puritan colony of Connecticut. With her flashy clothes and aristocratic roots, Kit doesn’t fit in with the piety or plainness of her new extended family. Feeling out of place, Kit befriends another outsider, the Quaker Hannah Tupper. When a fever strikes the children of Wethersfield, the residents accuse Hannah of bringing the plague upon the town. Kit too faces accusations of witchcraft, simply for befriending the woman no one else would touch.
History nerds will love The Witch of Blackbird Pond for its richly detailed depiction of day-to-day life in late 17th-century New England. Author Elizabeth George Speare has compared writing historical fiction to “an ever-fascinating game which I have likened to a scavenger hunt. I go to the library with a long list of items I must find. And turning the pages of some long-forgotten book in a dusty corner, I come upon unexpected treasures, bright bits of history” (source).
The novel really is a historical treasure trove with fascinating descriptions of corn husking, wool carding, and good old-fashioned courtship. These New England practices are as new and novel to us as they are our to our fish-out-of-water heroine. (Who knew talking about building a new house was as close to flirting as you could get in 17th-century Connecticut? Not Kit – and certainly not us.)
When it comes to history, though, the details aren’t the only parts that matter to The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The plot of the novel is built around the major religious and political debates of 17th-century America. Sounds serious, we know, but the novel presents history through its lively characters and exciting plot. The religious persecution of Quakers by Puritan settlers (click here and scroll down to "Dissent" for more), for example, is dramatized in the town’s treatment of Hannah Tupper.
Likewise, Speare did not make up witch trials, such as the one Kit experiences. Young women in early America were often tried for witchcraft and in many instances unjustly put to death. (Remember the Salem Witch Trials from history class?). Kit lives through this terrifying experience at the end of the novel.
Early American politics also play a big part in this novel; they are most vividly brought to life in the character of Kit’s Uncle Matthew. As an important voice in town government, Uncle Matthew eschews (gives up) loyalty to the King of England and instead argues for the right of the Connecticut colonists to govern themselves. We see the strength of his conviction when a new Royalist (loyal to the King of England) governor comes to town and threatens to revoke the Connecticut Colony’s charter. The struggle of Connecticut colonists such as Uncle Matthew foreshadows the coming American Revolution.
Though steeped in the religion, politics, and prejudices of its day, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is also at heart a story about two women – Kit Tyler and Hannah Tupper – who, for very different reasons, don’t fit into the society around them. As a tale of social outcasts and the perils they face, the book has achieved lasting popularity with young readers since its publication. The novel won the Newberry Award in 1959. It continues to be a favorite in classrooms today.
Why Should I Care?
Ever feel like you don’t quite fit in? You know, like you’re different from everyone else? Maybe you’ve had to sit by yourself at lunch. Or maybe you’ve been picked last for a game of kickball. Maybe you’ve been bullied – because of the way you talk, your weight, whether you like boys or girls, the color of your skin, or where you come from.
Whatever the case, Hannah Tupper, the titular character (that’s a fancy way of saying that she’s part of the title; she's the "witch") of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, feels your pain. Hannah is a Quaker, a religion whose followers faced persecution in the early American colonies.
Hannah and her husband Thomas were driven from their home. They weren’t allowed to live in Puritan society. They even had a brand put on their foreheads). Why? Well, because they were different. Because they didn’t quite fit in.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a novel about the dangers of intolerance, bigotry, and excluding people from society. The residents of Wethersfield, CT, mistreat Hannah because she is of a different faith. As they make no effort to understand her, they inevitably fear her. As Kit Tyler, the novel’s heroine, explains, “People are afraid of things they don’t understand” (11.58). To the Puritans, Hannah is not a person; she is simply a witch.
Throughout history, societies have targeted people who are different; outsiders frequently become scapegoats (people who take the blame for others) for society’s ills. In The Witch of Blackbird Pond we see yet again the dangers of this kind of thinking – and the kind of violence it can lead to.