The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George SpeareSummary: A 16 year old English girl that grew up in the free society of Barbados moves to a closely controlled community of Puritans in Connecticut in 1687.

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.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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What a thorough review!

Thank you for defending the Puritans – to the extent that they needed defending.
Historical fiction can be a powerful tool – for good or ill it seems to me. Unfortunately, my experience of the genre has been largely disappointing, if not downright irritating. Worse still, the greater the artistry, the more likely that the anachronous dialogues and social situations have been forever imprinted on my mind – despite the fact that I was thoroughly aware of every false note from the beginning! How treacherous such writing can be when foisted upon our young people with the aim of expanding their knowledge and understanding!

What are the forces behind such unilateral dispersion of falsehood? Are authors unaware of their own prejudices and caricatures learned from childhood? Is the necessary research simply in surmountable?

It matters to me as a reader, as an educator, and as a writer. I have a project begun that will essentially be of this genre, and I don’t want to add another gargoyle to an edifice already peppered with them!

    I think the worst of historical fiction (and a lot of Christian historical fiction is of this sort) is a reading onto history of our blind spots. But the best of historical fiction (and I think I read some of this) really gives the reader insight into our own blind spots. I also learned a good bit of actual history from reading a lot of historical fiction (and children’s biographies of historical figures which should have been formally labeled historical fiction).

    I think your same complaint is heard with movies, historical and scientific and political. We often think we know more than we do about reality because we are used to fictional reality more than ‘real reality’.

    But I think the alternative for many is no knowledge at all. And so we are left with the dilemma of an ignorant populace because of no access to even a fictionalized reality or a misled populace because of misinformation.

    I have no good answers except that there is no way to stop bad portrayals. So we might as well create good portrayals.

    That being said, I read a LOT less historical fiction these days because I have read enough history that the bad historical fiction irritates me. And the beginning of this book really irritated me. If it were a longer book, I might not have finished. I often wonder if I was more knowledgable in more areas, whether I would be irritated by more types of books.

      Thinking about this some more I think the slavery issue is a good one to explore. The problem with reading anti-slavery into Puritans of 1680s is that it idealizes them in a way that they were not ideal. Jonathan Edwards as an example was one of the most thoroughly Christian men of his time. He was very open to the moving of the spirit in ways contrary to his character and culture. And he was very introspective about his faith (in many ways to a fault.) But he did not seem to grasp the evil of slavery.

      Good historical fiction should unpack reality not cover it up. So we should learn from Edwards that even the best of us cannot possibly see ourselves and our attitudes as fully as we ought. So we should learn from good historical fiction that we too are sinners. And if serious Christians can sinfully own slaves, then what are we as a culture of modern Christians sinfully perpetuating that our descendants will be shocked at. And I think historical fiction does this in a ways that plain history has a hard time doing. I can read Mark Noll’s excellent history about Christian attitudes around slavery. But even that excellent history cannot work in quite the same way on our consciousness as the very good if slightly flawed portayal of slavery in a book like Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

      Sadly, your comment about ‘Christian’ fiction resonated with my own experience! Your last comment made me smile. Alexander Pope’s lines came to mind: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” Contrary to his subsequent remarks, I find that the more I learn, the more irritated I become with this genre. At my age, however, I am granted more latitude for curmudgeonliness!

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