Yet once again, I thought I had read a book, and when I go to read it again, realize I had not. This season of not buying new books has been pushing me to my library for audiobooks. I have tons of kindle books in my library that I need to get around to reading. But I do not have a lot of audiobooks that I have not read, especially fiction audiobooks. So I am working through my library wishlist.
The Witch of Blackbird pond was published in 1958 and was the first of two Newberry Awards that Elizabeth George Speare won (The other was for The Bronze Bow). Only 5 authors have received 2 Newberry Awards and no author has received more than two. When I was growing up I read a lot of historical fiction in my middle grade years. And since then I have read a lot more history. I am fairly familiar with the time period. Jonathan Edwards (although from Massachusetts) was born a few years after this book was set.
And really my only complaint about the book is its portrayal of the Puritans. Puritans are fairly easy targets in our modern world. They were serious, they were radical, they escaped religious persecution but believed in persecuting religious minorities in their midst. And then there were the witch trials. I have not read extensively on the witch trials. But they are one of the things that many think they know about the Puritans. What I do know is that Puritans, while not being perfect, were not actually the worst offenders. There were 32 people executed for witchcraft in New England (out of around 80 trials) but there were around 12,000 executed in Europe with somewhere between 40,000-100,000 people tried.
I was put off by the overly harsh portrayal of Puritans at the beginning of the book and some facts were just wrong. While Puritans were clearly hierarchical in family life, women had a strong role and were often fairly decently educated. Not all Puritans were literate, but literacy was very strongly encouraged for both men and women. So the surprise at Kit’s ability to read, and read well, is historically inaccurate. Children’s education was required in the New England Puritan colonies for boys and girls starting in 1650. Girl’s education was usually limited to the equivalent of elementary, but there was nearly universal basic literacy at the time. And mother’s literacy was prized because mothers were usually the first teacher and were involved in spiritual teaching in the home.
Slaves were not common in New England at the time, but it would have probably been odd for Nat to have been as anti-slavery as he is at the beginning of the book. (Much has been made of Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans holding slaves the last few years.)
And while plays would have been seen as sinful entertainment, Puritans were not opposed to stories, just frivolous ones. Stories needed morals and teaching at their root.
That being said, I enjoyed the rest of the book. It is a good fish out of water story. The free Kit, who is used to getting her way and doing what she pleased, would have had a hard time adjusting to a world of tight family control. Her uncle Matthew would have been thought responsible for her by the community. And to be historically accurate, there probably should have been more teaching and discipleship for her, especially given her marginally Catholic upbringing.
The romance seems appropriately tame, both for the Puritan age and the intended reader’s age. But the real point of the story seems to be accepting those that are different. Puritans and Quakers did not get along well. And the theological issues were glossed over here.
Like many middle grade books, the villains seem too evil. There really are just plain bad people. But because of the tight family control, and the small communities, the clear mistreatment of Prudence Cruff would have been a church affair. Children were to be disciplined and that discipline could be harsh. But Puritans were not cruel parents and would not have tolerated the blatant abuse and neglect that Prudence suffered.
That being said, Judith, William, John and the other mid-level characters did have good characterization. Not everyone has perfect motives, or the ability to express them. But because their motives are not pure, does not mean a person is entirely evil. Judith (Kit’s cousin) could be self-centered, rude and controlling, but she was not portrayed as evil, just as not perfect.
There is a lot that could be discussed here. And I am glad that a middle grade book can have so much ethical complexity and still have a relatively simple and straightforward story. This would make a good read aloud or book to read together with middle grade students.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Mary Beth Hurt and it was well done.
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