The Witch of Blackbird Pond
by Elizabeth George Speare
Katherine "Kit" Tyler
Katherine “Kit” Tyler is the teenage protagonist of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Originally from an aristocratic family on the island of Barbados, Kit travels by ship to the Connecticut Colony in search of her Aunt Rachel, a Puritan – and Kit’s only remaining family. The novel begins with Kit’s arrival in Connecticut in April of 1687. The next few hundred pages follow the adventures of our headstrong heroine as she clashes with the New England Puritans, befriends the town’s outcasts, and searches for a place she can call home.
A Fish Out of Water
The first thing we should know about Kit Tyler is that, as far as protagonists go, she is the classic fish-out-of-water. Kit was raised by her grandfather, Sir Francis Tyler, an aristocrat who was loyal to the King of England. Kit shares her grandfather’s politics, as well as his religion: a loose affiliation with the Church of England. She also enjoys aristocratic class privilege. Kit loves fancy dresses. Not one to labor in the fields, she prefers to lounge around and read Shakespeare. Also of note: Kit had a black slave to attend her needs all throughout her childhood.
Kit’s background is interesting enough, but her upbringing means that, in the Puritan Connecticut Colony, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Things are done much differently here than they are done in Barbados.
The Puritans are a hardworking lot, for starters, with a never-ending list of backbreaking chores: lots of wool carding and weed pulling. [As the narrator later moans on Kit’s behalf: “What was she doing here anyway, Sir Francis Tyler’s granddaughter, squatting in an onion patch?” (8.20).]
Also, no Shakespeare and no frilly dresses. Puritans wear drab clothes in dull colors and mainly read the Bible. Always devout, they also attend not one, but two church services on Sundays.
The Puritans also differ from Kit and her grandfather politically. Uncle Matthew, the husband of Aunt Rachel, openly criticizes the King. Many of the colonists argue for the right to govern themselves – and several are opposed to slavery. (Culture clash, anyone?)
Living with a Puritan family means that Kit must change her dress…and just about everything else. Can Kit ever really change her tropical colors to fit in with the Wood family in drab New England? Can she learn to understand this strange new world?
Kit Tyler vs. the World
If Kit Tyler is a fish out of water, she is soon thrown into the frying pan. Her behavior in Wethersfield causes a gradual uproar in the town that ends with accusations of witchcraft, her arrest, and a trial. Many of her fellow passengers on the Dolphin speculate that she is a witch when they find out she can swim. As Goodwife Cruff says, “no respectable woman could keep afloat in the water like that” (1.77).
Kit also runs into trouble when she is asked to help Mercy with the dame school. Not understanding the sobriety and seriousness of Puritan education, she is temporarily booted from her teaching position for having the children playact a scene from the Bible.
Perhaps Kit’s most serious offense is her friendship with Hannah Tupper, the Quaker widow who lives alone by Blackbird Pond. Aunt Rachel warns against befriending the woman, arguing that “sometimes evil can seem innocent and harmless” (10.24). When Uncle Matthew finds out about Kit’s friendship with Hannah, he outright forbids her to see the woman. Neither Aunt Rachel nor Uncle Matthew takes the time to get to know Hannah; as Kit tells Prudence, “People are afraid of things they don’t understand” (11.58).
Nat Eaton, the captain’s son, uses the metaphor of a bird to describe Kit’s situation in Wethersfield:
“You know,” he said looking carefully away at the river, “once when I was a kid we went ashore at Jamaica, and in the marketplace there was a man with some birds for sale. They were sort of yellow-green with bright scarlet patches. I was bent on taking one home to my grandmother in Saybrook. But father explained it wasn’t meant to live up here, that the birds here would scold and peck at it. Funny thing, that morning when we left you here in Wethersfield – all the way back to the ship all I could think of was that bird.” (12.29)
Kit is indeed a tropical bird in a cold climate; can she survive the town’s scolding and pecking?
Band of Outsiders
Kit’s strained relations with the Puritan community leave her feeling isolated and alone. Kit finds a kindred spirit, though, with a fellow outcast: Hannah Tupper. Like Kit, Hannah is different. As a Quaker, she doesn’t attend the church services on Sunday, she must live apart from the Puritans in a tiny house down by Blackbird Pond, and she has even been branded on her forehead for her faith. Despite all of this, Kit finds peace in Hannah’s tiny house:
The girl looked about her. “’Tis a pretty room,” she said without thinking, and then wondered how that could be, when it was so plain and bare. Perhaps it was only the sunlight on boards that were scrubbed smooth and white, or perhaps it was the feeling of peace that lay across the room as tangibly as the bar of sunshine. (9.57)
Hannah’s kindness gives Kit the friendship that she so desperately needs, and Kit soon extends this sense of peace and belonging to others. She befriends a young girl name Prudence whose mother won’t allow her to attend the dame school. Within the walls of Hannah’s house, however, Kit teaches Prudence how to read and write, giving the girl a renewed sense of confidence. She also learns that Nat Eaton, the captain’s son, is friends with Hannah as well. The two work together to build up Hannah’s roof…and perhaps something more?
Kit feels at home with Hannah, Prudence, and even Nat. These warm feelings, however, won’t last for long:
Kit would remember many times the picture she carried with her along the darkening road. Was there some premonition, she would wonder, that made the moment so poignant, some foreknowledge that this was the last afternoon the three would ever spend together in the small cottage? (16.84)
The Witch Trial
In Kit’s witch trial, we see the dangerous consequences of an intolerant society; outsiders like Kit and Hannah become targets for the town’s fears and prejudices. Notice the increasing hysteria of the accusations against Kit:
Another woman testified that one afternoon last September she had been sitting in the window, sewing a jacket for her husband, when she had looked up and seen Kit walking past her house, starring up at the window in a strange manner. Whereupon, try as she would, the sleeve would never set right in the jacket. A man swore he had seen Kit and Goody Tupper dance round a fire in the meadow one moonlit night, and that a great black man, taller than an Indian, had suddenly appeared from nowhere and joined in the dance. (19.31)
Though Uncle Matthew defends Kit, his voice is only one in a crowd. It will be up to her friends Nat and Prudence to come to her aid and clear her reputation.
The Search for Home
Inevitably, Kit must find a place she can truly find home – a place filled with the people that she loves. By the end of the novel, Kit has come to understand and appreciate the hardworking Wood family, her Uncle Matthew in particular. But Judith and Mercy married now, and she can’t stay with the Woods forever. Hannah, of course, is gone; Nat took her to Saybrook.
Kit must decide what to do with her life – and where to live it. Where is her home? Is it in New England or Barbados? Her dream gives us the answer:
One night she woke from a vivid dream. She and Nat had stood side by side at the bow of the Dolphin, watching that familiar curving prow carving gently through calm turquoise water. They came soundlessly into a palm-studded harbor, fragrant with the scent of blossoms, and happiness was like sunshine, wrapping her round and pouring into her heart till it overflowed. (20.60)
How does Kit interpret this dream in the end? Where is Kit’s true home?Timeline