Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King. This month, Catherine examines the 1959 medalist The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
“I know you mean to be kind… but you are very young, child. You don’t understand how sometimes evil can seem innocent and harmless.” (The Witch of Blackbird Pond, pg. 100)
Previously, on Decoding the Newbery, we flew away with Professor Sherman into a perfectly crafted utopia built on steam power, diamonds, and imagination. Now, in Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, we dwell in a greyer world — Wethersfield, Connecticut, circa 1662. Kit Tyler, freshly arrived from Barbados, has to adjust in mind, body, and soul to what her new Puritan family expects of her. She only finds solace in the company of Hannah Tupper, so-called witch.
Published in 1958, The Witch of Blackbird Pond bears a passing resemblance to Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, from six years earlier. Both works deal with themes of paranoia, suspicion, and a community turned against itself, recognizable themes during the Red Scare. The Red Scare was the intangible undercurrent to the 1950’s optimism, a nightmare in which the invisible, Communist enemy has infiltrated the homeland, and now waits for their chance to undermine all that is American and good. But instead of being set in the contemporary era, Speare and Miller translate these anxieties into stories set in the early European settlements of New England. Puritans, who live sober, strict lives and fear witchcraft in the night, are our protagonists.
Puritans are a curious force in the national memory of Americans. It’s their story that we revisit — in sanitized, whitewashed form — every Thanksgiving, as if we’re rebooting our own superhero franchise. They escaped the Old World’s intolerance only to nearly die from the New World’s harshness. They can never rest easy in the life they have — they always fight the earth, and fear the Other, whether that’s the Natives in the forest, the beasts of the field, or the witches in the wood.
Elizabeth George Speare taps into these images, and that culture, in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The story follows Kit Tyler, a disenfranchised heiress from Barbados who sails to bleak Wethersfield, Connecticut, to join her aunt’s Puritan family. At sixteen, she is on the older side for a Kid Hero, but is sufficiently inexperienced to qualify.
Kit finds Wethersfield to be a depressing Small Town, especially compared to Barbados – the tight-knit community shuts her out completely. Being set circa 1662, Witch qualifies as a Period Piece, but Speare does not enter into the Puritan mindset as wholly as Arthur Miller did. Parts of the work feel anachronistic, particularly the Social Issue — which is self-governance, as if the American Revolution is just around the corner — and the Romance plotline, which is not so much a plotline as a contrivance, involving six participants who never talk to one another. Speare relies heavily on the obstruction that results when people fail to communicate their true feelings. It fits with the larger themes of the book, but makes for very boring reading.
The closest that Witch comes to a Hands-On Activity, beyond general hardscrabble living in Connecticut (complete with two Sunday services per day), is Kit’s brief tenure as a teacher. Specifically, she’s an assistant teacher to her cousin, Mercy. However, Kit’s teaching style is too imaginative for the Puritans, and when the Elders dismiss her, Kit, now in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, runs to a nearby meadow to be alone, and inadvertently makes the acquaintance of Hannah Tupper, town pariah and resident Wise Soul.
Hannah Tupper stands out for me as one of the best portions of the book. She and her husband, as faithful Quakers, were victims of the Puritan’s religious intolerance (in one of the sticking ironies of the myth of Puritans, they faced persecution in England and were only too happy to visit it upon everyone else in America). The Tuppers endured nightmarish cruelty, complete with brands on their foreheads, but in old age, Hannah meets the world with grace and goodwill. She’s like a Connecticut version of Uncle Iroh[1. Editor’s note, Avatar the Last Airbender shoutout] managing to convey hard-won and truly meant benevolence and wisdom. In Hannah Tupper’s house, outcasts and oddballs – such as dashing but lonesome sailor Nat Eaton, abused child Prudence Cruff, and Kit herself – gather and learn to care for one another, and for Hannah herself. Her mind is starting to wander, and she talks to her long-dead husband. To readers today, this is a recognizable affliction of age. Kit witnesses this, and can’t stop worrying about the rumors of witchcraft.
Stories with the word “Witch” in the title have a powerful inertia to them, and about two thirds of the way through the book, a witch hunt brews against Hannah, blaming her for the plague of fever that’s gripped the village. The closest that the book comes to a Death by Newbery Medal is that Kit must send Hannah away, and might never see her again, for the old woman’s own safety. This does not have the emotional punch and instant maturity that Death offers — mostly as a matter of time, because without Hannah, suspicion of witchcraft quickly falls on Kit instead. Our heroine must stand trial, and pay the price for being a bright, outspoken girl who doesn’t fit in and hasn’t made friends.
The eventual trial ends up being… well, not as thrilling as the analogous scene in The Crucible. The quote that I shared above suggests that the book will contain more moral ambiguities than it really does. Kit’s first impressions of people tend to be correct. Hannah Tupper hasn’t an evil bone in her body; the worst risk she poses is to Kit’s reputation. Kit was right about her, and the readers always knew that. In contrast, the day that Kit arrives in Wethersfield, she meets Goodwife Cruff, who hates her on sight. The readers are never surprised by new depths to Goodwife Cruff. Instead, her hatred of Kit – hysterical, but simple – ends up dominating the trial scene.
During the trial, Kit falls into a very dated, 1950’s trope of feminine passivity — her trial consists mostly of men talking around and about her. But what saves her, in the end, is the fruits of her own labor and kindness. The friends she made at Hannah Tupper’s house come in and testify for her. It’s simple, but humanistic. The witch-hunter’s cycle of violence is stopped when people speak the truth, and others listen — literally, as when Prudence reads aloud from the Bible, taught to her by Kit.
It’s a far cry from the courtroom within Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, wherein the friendship between girls is a poisonous, treacherous thing. The girls’ guilt may be ambiguous, but their modus operandi is clear: girls conspire, seduce, break down, plot revenge, and remake reality in their own twisted image. (I maintain you haven’t seen this play until you’ve seen it performed by an all-girl’s Catholic high school.)
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, though not perfect, it’s a more grounded and human tale. The monster of witch-hunting can be stopped, but only by listening. Kit Tyler is a believable, lonely young girl who doesn’t fit into the world she’s entered, but when she strikes out on her own, she finds solace in unexpected places, and in the end, Kit’s inner conviction changes Wethersfield, even a tiny bit, for the better. But to be honest, the book could have used some hot air balloons… or maybe some actual witchcraft.
So much for that…. What’s next?
Next up is A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. A work of fiction that is both dated to its 1960’s origin and utterly timeless, a forerunner to modern fantasy adventures such as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and one of my favorite books of all time.
I’ll be examining Wrinkle closely, and some of its companion books less closely, discussing their unity as a series (or lack thereof) and the particular standalone perfection of Wrinkle. So I’ll see you in a month… on the other side of the tesseract. Happy reading!
Catherine Faris King is a Los Angeles based writer who studied English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing at Whittier College, and French Literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The Ninety-Ninth Bride from Book Smugglers Publishing, is her publishing debut.