I was around 11 years old the first time Mom read The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare out loud to us. That was a good year for read-alouds. We were studying American history, and that meant Johnny Tremain, Carry On Mr Bowditch, Sign of the Beaver, and Calico Bush. My favorite, though, the book I picked up and read and re-read until I wore out our copy and had to buy a new one…that was The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It is the first book I remember reading over and over and probably remains the story I have read the most. In fact, I just re-read it. I wasn’t sure I could put words to a review. Can something so personal really be explained?
For those of you who haven’t read it, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about orphaned sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler. Raised on the beautiful island of Barbados, Kit is forced to leave her tropical home for the cold, uninviting Connecticut Colony of Wethersfield where her strict Puritan relatives don’t know what to do with her. Where once she knew silks and petticoats and the care of black slaves, she is now forced to work and wear the plain cotton dress considered appropriate to the austere population. Her only comfort is found in the meadows where the old Quaker woman, Hannah Tupper, resides. Will she ever be able to reconcile herself to the stubborn New England population, or will she return to Barbados? And when the unthinkable happens and the mob goes after Hannah as a witch, can she save her in time? And where does the mocking young sailor, Nat Eaton, fit in?
One of my favorite passages is when Kit first sees the meadows…
As they came out from the shelter of the trees and the Great Meadows stretched before them, Kit caught her breath. She had not expected anything like this. From the first moment, in a way she could never explain, the Meadows claimed her and made her their own. As far as she could see they stretched on either side, a great level sea of green, broken here and there by a solitary graceful elm. Was it the fields of sugar cane they brought to mind, or the endless reach of the ocean to meet the sky? Or was it simply the sense of freedom and space and light that spoke to her of home?…How often she would come back she had no way of foreseeing, nor could she know that never, in the months to come, would the Meadows break the promise they held for her at this moment, a promise of peace and quietness and of comfort for a troubled heart.
Go and ahead and re-read that. Form each word in your mouth. Taste it. I love the writing in this book.
I also love the characters. Hannah Tupper used to mystify me. Where did she go when the floods came and filled her little cottage by Blackbird Pond? She was homey and wonderful and more then once, I joined Kit and Prudence and Hannah on the sun-warmed floor with the kittens and blueberry cake or sat in the eaves as the roof as Kit and Nat re-thatched it. There is lots of character change, whether Kit learning to love her new homeland or her cousin Judith navigating beaus. I love Kit’s cousin Mercy. I think Nat might have been my first Favorite Literary Guy.
More than anything, though, more than the characters and the writing…I love the time this takes place. When men and women grew up fast and worked hard. When America was tamed by colonist and their fight for the independence. I love the description of the New England men, firm rock. Uncle Matthew, John Holbrook, William Ashby, and of course Nat Eaton. They valued their independence and would not easily submit to a King’s rule, a King’s governor, or extra taxes on the land they tamed with their own hand. This is the true founding of the United States. The beginning steps that led up to Lexington and the Declaration of Independence and on and on….
All in a novel.
It’s books like this one that prove why stories can be so powerful. There is no deeper meaning carefully hidden in the pages, you don’t have to have a doctorate to discern the story. It’s a good novel, comforting and well-written, but it is also a young woman from Barbados, a Royalist, a total stranger coming to understand and love the spirit that tamed the colonies. It was a spirit that fed me as a girl, that formed deep within and taught me to hope and dream. It was a spirit that found strength from the novels I loved and the history I read.
So to understand me, you have to try and understand that part of me. The reason I was probably the only high school girl with a picture of George Washington hanging above my bed instead of a favorite pop-band. The reason the Revolutionary War captures my imagination so. The reason I can get so excited over long dead philosophers like John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu. Because they wrote about freedom. I look out my window, and I see carefully paved roads, solid houses, and trees that have never felt the bite of an ax. But go a little farther and you can see the field-stone farmhouse from the 1800s where my Grandparents live and my ancestors settled many, many years ago. Go a little farther and you can see the one-room school house still standing where my relative many, many years ago taught school to the pioneer children. Go back even farther and watch as my ancestor joined in signing the Mayflower Compact. Go back farther and trace British roots and the sense of personal freedom stretching from the Magna Carta to the book of Deuteronomy and on and on.
Patriotic is sort of a cheesy word these days. Red, white and blue. And yet it is possible for us to be patriotic because of those log cabins and the ships that traded dangerously in wind-tossed sea. It is possible for us to be patriotic because our ancestors so many years ago stood up for their rights and freedom against the King. I love The Witch of Blackbird Pond because that rock that Kit learns to lean on, that stubborn independence, that fight for liberty….that’s in my blood. Our culture may dilute it. Historians may re-write it. The well-manicured lawns outside my window may poo-poo it. But I know, deep down inside, that when the time comes, we must fight for our rights. The United States was an experiment. It was men fighting the charters of their King. And though time may lull us, the experiment is not yet over. That is what I know, and that is why this book is so important to me.