One of the best parts of my job—teaching—is getting to reread some of my favorite books with students. One of the students I have now is reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. This is one of the things that has been making me feel so nostalgic about books from my childhood, and one of the reasons why I’ve decided to reread some of those books. So, of course, I had to start with this one.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about a 16 year-old girl named Katherine, or Kit. She grew up on the island of Barbados in the 1600s, raised by her grandfather. But when her grandfather passes away, she goes to live with her aunt’s family in Puritan New England. Puritan culture is a shock to Kit. They think she’s a witch because she can swim, their church services are long and dull, they don’t like books that aren’t the Bible, and they seem to judge everything about her. Her aunt is kind, but Kit tends to do a lot of wrong in the eyes of her husband. Her cousins are kind as well. Mercy is sweet and gentle, although cripple, and Judith is nice enough, though very focused on procuring the right man for a husband. But despite the kindness her family shows her, Kit is homesick and lonely for someone who understands her.
Then she happens to meet an old woman who lives on her own on the edge of town. Hannah Tupper is a widow and a Quaker, the latter quality making her an outcast from the Puritan society. Even though rumors say that Hannah is a witch, she is the only person who accepts Kit as who she is without judging her. Though Nat Eaton, the son of the captain whose ship brought Kit from Barbados to Connecticut, seems to like Kit too. Most of the time.
As tension grows with the political situation with the new governor appointed by the king, people grow on edge. After the tension increases when several children grow sick, people begin to point fingers at Hannah, calling her a witch. As a mob, they determine to drive her from their town or even harm her, but Kit won’t let anything happen to her only friend. She helps Hannah escape with the help of Nat, also a friend of Hannah, but this only turns her into the accused.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a great grade level introduction to the good and bad side of Puritan New England. It offers readers a glimpse into the life of Puritan society—the plain clothing, religious community, and hard work. It also reveals the superstition, austerity, and narrow mindedness that often festered in such cultures long ago. Readers experience this world as Kit experiences it. Kit—and the reader—are outsiders, unfamiliar with this way of life. Kit and the reader are shocked by the same things, surprised by the same things, and ostracized by the same things. Kit’s circumstances make her the perfect conduit for the reader, especially young readers, as they experience this time period for the first time.
The story is not only a great representation of the historical time period, but it stays relevant with timeless themes. Even though we no longer live in a Puritan society, the morals of the story apply to us as well. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a lesson against gossip, false accusations, and prejudice. It’s also a lesson on what it is like to be an outsider. Most of us do not move to different countries, but children often experience going to a new school or a new town, and they can sympathize with the struggle Kit experiences as she tries to acclimate to her new home.
The heart of the story, though, is standing up for what is right. Kit does not abandon her friend Hannah when she is in danger. She rushes to help her. She defends her when others accuse her of false things. Kit also stands up for other people, such as her young student Prudence. Because she is uninhibited by prejudice, Kit extends kindness towards everyone, particularly those society overlooks.
There are important messages in this book, which is one of the reasons why it won the Newberry Medal. The themes and the historical time period make it a great book for elementary-aged students, though I would encourage people of all ages to read it. It’s a great story, and well told. I thoroughly enjoyed reading again, even at 22. Though, while I enjoyed reliving the plot, themes, and time period, I also couldn’t help but relive my childhood crush on Nat Eaton. Some things never change!