Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Rain and Books, 17

This post is a little different from previous installments of Snow (or Rain) and Books. First, I read this book in the summer. Though it's usually winter and spring weather that drives me to hide indoors with a book, occasionally a summer thunderstorm has the same effect. Second, this is my first post in the "books" category that not about a guidebook, but a novel.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond was written in 1958 and has become a classic of children's literature. Elizabeth George Speare tells the (fictional) story of Katherine (Kit) Tyler, a Barbados girl who travels to Wethersfield, Connecticut and encounters some (real) 17th century drama.

A sort of cross between The Secret Garden and Ahab's Wife (if the latter had a PG version), The Witch of Blackbird Pond brought back some of my favorite childhood memories. Occasionally, in elementary school, we would spend a day performing Colonial-era tasks, such as making candles. Though useless from an educational standpoint, completely divorced from any actual historical information, and presented in a not particularly enjoyable manner, I loved these little forays into old-fashioned manual labor. Before that, when I still played with dolls, I would invent plots for them which could all be summed up as Girl Begins New Life. Usually this involved the "girl" starting out with tragic hair and dressed in only a Kleenex and being suddenly presented with a miniature plastic brush, ribbons, and the tiny lace dresses and shoes that had come with her in her box. (Hours of fun, I tell you.)

This essentially happens in Witch, albeit in reverse. When Kit shows up in Puritan Connecticut, she is a spoiled and sheltered yet curious teenager, wearing the vibrant silks of her affluent tropical home. She quickly learns, from the family members at whose house she unexpectedly turns up, that neither her personality nor her wardrobe will fly in Wethersfield and she must hide her fripperies in their trunks and attempt to be "useful," stirring soap in a kettle and making corn pudding. I never read this book in school (too busy making candles, I suppose) but if I had, I would no doubt have forced my parents to drive me to Wethersfield the minute I finished it.

I don't want to give too much away, but there is a witchcraft trial, depicted in a manner that hints at the absurdity and horror of the time. Some details are misleading - e.g., Quakers, while persecuted in early New England, were not considered witches. But although I am normally extremely pedantic about the accuracy of historical fiction, I was so amused to be reading a novel about Connecticut history and recognizing my own state (Edmund Andros! Sabbath Day houses! Meetings where everyone squabbles about taxes! Onions! Goats!) that I forgave this book for any errors it might contain.

I was also amused, as a grown-up reader, by the trio of cute Colonial boys the young ladies of Witch have to choose from: a repressed Puritan scholar, a proud sailor, and a basic bro obsessed with building a 1600's McMansion. There's a lot of crying, and a proposal misunderstanding worthy of Tolstoy, but - I don't think this is a spoiler - it all works out in the end.

Speare paints enthralling pictures of how a Connecticut settlement in the 1600s would have looked, before the stately houses of later centuries were built and before the meadows, which must have seemed like places where magic could be done, were paved over. There are lovely descriptions of New England's seasons, seen through the eyes of a girl who has never experienced them before.

I should say that there is a witch in this story, although she is not that sort of witch, and she is not one of the women accused. I wonder whether Speare, writing in the 1950s, realized she was creating a one-dimensional villain of a woman even as she condemned 17th century society for doing the same. I also wonder whether, if she could revisit the book today, she would explain the motivation for that female character's cruel actions, as she does with her novel's dour men.
I should also say that Witch only feels like a children's book in that facts and events are spelled out a little more than necessary and issues like slavery, and the true implications of marriage - a major plot point - are glossed over. With a few passages removed to allow readers to piece things together on their own, this could almost be a book for adults. (One you can read in a few hours.) In fact, I found it far more enjoyable than most YA novels, which tend to annoy me; perhaps children were smarter and better-read in the 1950s.

I came to Connecticut as a toddler from New York, not a 16-year-old from Barbados. I also came in the 1970s, not 1687. Yet the shocked and disapproving silence with which Kit is often greeted in Witch, and the admonishments she regularly receives for being well-meaning yet irrevocably different, were deeply familiar to me. If you suspect they would be familiar to you as well, and if you haven't yet read this book, do. But I warn you, you will want to go to Wethersfield right away. And you'll seriously want some cornbread.

1 comment:

  1. A colleague at work is a resident of Wethersfield and reports that the historical society sells a map showing the locations mentioned in the book. A check of their website reveals several resources for teachers [] and students that revolve around the book.



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