17 November 2011

The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)

I was surprised by how much I'd forgotten about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. First of all, the "witch" is only a small part of the tale of sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler, who's left her grandfather's plantation in Barbados after his death to live with an aunt she's never met in the far-off colony of Connecticut. Leaving her pampered tropical existence for Puritan New England proves even more of a shock than she'd thought: the climate is chilly, the work backbreaking, and the religion staid. But there are bright spots here and there--perhaps the brightest is her forbidden friendship with an old Quaker woman named Hannah Tupper, who lives along by Blackbird Pond, and is suspected and feared by the townspeople.

The narrow world of 1687 Wethersfield opens up to a remarkably broad slice of history, much of it to do with freedom: religious (for the Puritans and Quakers), political (Connecticut's struggle to preserve its charter rather than be ruled by Massachusetts--and by extension, the king of England, of whom the Puritans were hardly fans), even simply personal (both Kit and her grandfather owned slaves in Barbados, who were sold to pay for the journey. Her cousins are as shocked by this as she is by their two Sunday services). And, of course, Kit yearns for the lost freedom of her wild childhood, running and reading and paying no mind to the world. Gradually, she learns what we all learn growing up: that pleasing yourself is important, but not all. (Put another, less back-of-the-book way: when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, and when to just walk away.)

Another great, great read, that I think could easily be an adult novel. Kit is impetuous and opinionated, like all the best romance novel heroines--but everyone else is interesting, too, and full of nuance. Even the townsfolk who persecute Hannah and eventually accuse Kit herself of witchcraft aren't evil, but afraid. The message is more complex than "be yourself!" or "different is good!" Because, of course, both those platitudes don't always apply. More books for kids should acknowledge this, darn it.

(It's also pretty fun to needle my Stamford-born boyfriend in re: New Englanders always being frosty and confrontation-averse. Unless, you know, it's burnin' witches. Everyone enjoys a good witch-burnin'. And Kit's uncle insults someone by calling him a "whited sepulcher," which I must use from now on.)

Sunday: Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux! I wish this one were three times longer, because I already don't want it to end.

1 comment:

  1. One of the other great things about it is how much it packs into a relatively short text - 60,000 words, but it feels shorter.


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