The year is 1687, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond tells the story of Kit Tyler, a young 16-year-old from Barbados who moves in with her aunt and uncle in Connecticut after the death of her grandfather. While she is used to having sunshine, freedom, and a prolific education, she is more than shocked to find that the Puritan town of Wethersfield is cold, strict, and bitterly close-minded. Her wealthy upbringing, vibrant personality, and fun-loving ways are mismatched with the New England work ethic, sense of practicality, and tight-lipped formality.
Stifled by her new life, her emotions reach a boiling point and she is found sobbing in the meadows by Hannah Tupper, an old Quaker lady who has been whispered to be a “witch” because of her queer ways and differing religious beliefs. Kit and Hannah become fast friends and share a sense of understanding with each other that neither of them can really find anywhere else. They form a motley little group of kindred spirits with Prudence, a young Puritan girl whose mother is a cynical gossip and thinks she won’t amount to much, and Nat Eaton, the captain’s son whom Kit grew to know and like aboard the ship that brought her to America.
Throughout the book, Kit must learn to discern what it is she truly values: politically, religiously, socially, and romantically. She and her cousins, Mercy and Judith, all get caught in a love triangle, for lack of a better phrase, and she has to reassess the priorities of her heart. She learns to appreciate her stern uncle’s calm courage in standing up for the rights of the colonists, even though as a Loyalist she disagrees. Selflessness, hard work, and compromise are all things that she learns to navigate. Unfortunately, tensions reach their zenith when an angry mob of Puritans come after Hannah, accusing her of witchcraft. Kit impulsively (but rightly) races the mob to save her friend under cover of darkness. Her good deed holds some serious backlash, however, when the accusation is turned against her. Everything culminates in a massive trial, at the end of which she is gloriously acquitted.
In the end, she turns down a proposal from a young man of means, realizing that Nat’s sense of adventure and sly humor is the kind of home she’s been searching for. Wethersfield had much to teach her, but she knew it was time to move on to a different chapter. It is then that she fully absorbs Hannah’s advice that, “There is no escape if love is not there.” Kit and Nat then make plans to marry and sail away, visiting Connecticut every so often.
This was one of the most satisfying books I have read in a really long time. Speare skillfully blends history and fiction in this tale, and she creates an incredibly unique heroine. One of the most fascinating things about Kit is that she decides to move on from her lives in both Barbados and Connecticut. She can’t go back to Barbados, and she doesn’t truly belong in Wethersfield. How many books have you read in which the main character has to move to a new place, and by the final chapter, they’ve gained some great life lessons and they’ve opened their hearts to this new home, where they will stay forevermore? Well, Kit learns those life lessons, but she has an inner sense of knowing that she must leave. Utterly radical for a children’s book!
Kit also keeps a lot of her opinions and beliefs the same, and I think this ties in perfectly with the overall message of the story. Kit came from a rich and prominent family, one that was loyal to the king and owned plantations and slaves! However, while her life circumstances don’t permit her to live that exact lifestyle anymore, she never renounces those practices and beliefs. Kit is still a wonderful, strong heroine, and while slavery is 100% wrong, readers can pick up that this was normal for Kit. She doesn’t make that moral connection, but it doesn’t make her a bad character! I found that to be an amazing way of imparting the message that just because someone has a different belief, culture, or tradition, doesn’t mean they should be deprived of respect and dignity. (It is so satisfying when Goodwife Cruff gets hit with this gem!)
Ultimately, this book is a fantastic way for kids and adults alike to take a clear look at what prejudice can do the people who promote it and the people to whom it’s directed. This tale warns us to never settle for a life path because it’s convenient and to go live the life you were meant to live. Be courageous, set out for uncharted waters, and learn something in every port!! As far as life advice goes, it’s hard to top that.