Saturday, December 29, 2012

311 (2012 #56). The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare,
read by Mary Beth Hurt

Sixteen-year-old Katherine "Kit" Tyler, an orphan since age two, must leave her beloved Barbados when her grandfather dies.  She surprises her aunt (her mother's sister) and uncle and their two daughters, her only living relatives, in the town of Wethersfield in the Connecticut Colony.  The year is 1687.

From the very beginning, Kit can't seem to do anything right.  She jumps in the river to save a child's doll (this comes back to haunt her later), her clothes are too flamboyant,  her spirits too high.  She doesn't fit in with the strict, dour Puritans of Wethersfeld--but manages to attract the most eligible (and wealthy) young man in town, who everyone expected her cousin to marry.  This causes strife with her family members, who are frustrated with her lack of useful skills.

Kit ultimately becomes friends with another outcast, Hannah Tupper, a Quaker expelled from Massachusetts who lives near Blackbird Pond.  When an epidemic hits the town, the trouble begins.  The ending is a little predicatable, but Elizabeth George Speare makes excellent points about bigotry, tolerance, and the nature of love.

In her 1959 Newbery Medal acceptance paper*, Speare said she developed the characters first, then "was compelled to find a home for them."  She goes on:

I chose Wethersfield, the town in which my husband and I have lived for twenty years, because it is one of the oldest towns in New England, one of the first of the Connecticut settlements, because it was once a bustling river port with all the romance and color of the old sailing ships, and because the girl I could now see quite clearly [Kit] seemed ...to be at home in the quiet and lovely Wethersfield meadows that still lie for undisturbed stretches along the Connecticut River.  I chose the year 1687, arbitrarily because the story of the Connecticut Charter was irresistible, a perfect little vignette, revealing in miniature all the powerful forces which, nearly one hundred years before the Revolution, were moving America irrevocably toward independence. (pages 73-74)

Speare did a marvelous job incorporating details of life in this era, as well as the historical context, into her novel.  For example, there really were a Goody Johnson and Goody Harrison (page 182 in the text), both tried for witchcraft in Wethersfield.  I love the way Speare describes her historical research:  "I should hesitate to dignify by such a scholarly term the haphazard, indiscriminate, greedy forage in which I indulged.  History, geography, town records, genealogies, novels set in the same period - I gulped all these down with, at first, little thought of anything but my own enjoyment.  There were fascinating bypaths from which I had to drag myself back - Quakerism for one, and the early development of education in New England." The latter was another topic addressed in the novel, as Kit and Mercy run a school for a while.

I've been trying to experience most of these Newbery Medalists as audiobooks - this one (pictured above) was released in 2002.  Actress Mary Beth Hurt does a fine job as narrator.  Unique voices are created for all the major characters.  Kit's voice is a little more British (for lack of a better term) than the others, reflecting her recent arrival from the Barbados.

I can't believe I didn't read this book when I was a child.  I loved the character of Kit and really identified with her.  The book has something to say about fitting in; how one needs to adapt yet also stay true to oneself.  I think my 9-year-old self would have loved this book, especially since it has a little (but not too much) romance.  I think it would also be excellent as supplemental reading in social studies or history.  Highly recommended

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Elizabeth George Speare, "Newbery Award Acceptance," in Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman, The Horn Book, Inc, Boston, 1965, pages 72-77.   The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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