Thursday, April 10, 2008

Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond
by Elizabeth George Speare
Recommended Age: 12+

The 1959 winner of the Newbery Medal is NOT about a girl who learns to fly on a broomstick, brew potions, and make things appear and disappear with a wave of her wand. There isn’t really a witch in this book at all. But don’t let that stop you from reading it!

Set in the British colony of Connecticut in the year 1687, it is the story of Katherine Tyler, commonly known as Kit. Raised by her grandfather in a carefree lifestyle in sunny Barbados, Kit is forced to leave the paradise where she grew up and move in with her only surviving relatives. They are an aunt on her mother’s side and her stern husband (sound familiar?). Moreover, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew live in a small settlement in the harsh climate of Connecticut, with their two daughters—the beautiful but haughty Judith, and the lame but warm-hearted Mercy.

It’s a tough move for everyone concerned. Vivacious, headstrong Kit is used to a life of leisure, being served by black slaves, and enjoying the pleasures of high culture, high fashion, and high spirits all around. Under the glowering countenance of Uncle Matthew, she must acquaint herself with homespun garments, a life of constant toil, long church “meetings,” and the easily offended sensibilities of her Puritan neighbors. And even though she makes the adjustment well enough to be courted by a well-to-do young man, Kit remains homesick, lonely, and oppressed by drudgery and the hostile stares of some of the villagers. Her few pleasures include the natural beauty of a swampy meadow, the changing of the seasons, the company of a young seaman named Nat and an abused child named Prudence. And yes, Kit also enjoys the forbidden company of a lonely old woman who has been branded as a heretic and even, in the minds of some of the neighbors, a witch.

The result is a drama full of surprising characters, horror, suspense, romance, and touching courage. The story isn’t only about a girl who risks being accused of witchcraft. It is also about a young woman finding love—family love and romantic love—under discouraging conditions. It is about the growth of a heroine’s character and what she learns about herself and the people around her. It is about a community’s fight to preserve its freedom, about the struggle in the consciences of young people and old, and about a young stranger finding her true home.

So what if it doesn’t have magic? This story will cast its spell on you, too, making you feel like part of a place and a story set far back in history, amid a culture and a way of life few of us can easily imagine. And in spite of its cold climate, this story also glows with warmth, sympathy, and understanding. Like a good fantasy, it draws you into its world. And, even better, it leaves you wanting to stay there a while longer.

EDIT: Speare won another Newbery Medal in 1962 for The Bronze Bow. She also wrote The Calico Captive and The Sign of the Beaver, a Newbery Honor Book which also won the Scott O'Dell Award and other honors; and she is one of only 16 authors and illustrators who have received the American Library Association's Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for career achievement in children's literature since 1954. Speare died in 1994.

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