Title: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Dell Yearling
Device: Trade paper
For a plot summary
I have chosen three young adult classics to read for Banned Books Week and one to review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A Wrinkle in Time and The Bridge to Terabithia. Each have been continually challenged or banned by parents and educational organizations since their dates of publication.
I have to say right off the mark this kind of behavior fascinates me. I grew up in a reading household where I freely took books off shelves at home and at my grandparents’ houses and I do not remember my parents ever telling me I couldn’t read something. My relationship with my parents was very open and no question, either personal or educational, was ever off limits. So I suppose if I read something that bothered me, I’d ask them. But I remember discussions, not banning. This is all to say my comments below question the reasons why The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a challenged book.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in the late 1600s and tells the story of Kit, who grew up a carefree young girl on a wealthy plantation in Barbados. When she is suddenly orphaned, she sails to Wethersfield, Connecticut to live with her mother’s sister, her husband and their two daughters in their strict Puritan home. She is not used to doing chores and the work of a homestead, nor is she used to the stifled way of thinking which makes her feel like an outsider. She befriends the widow Hannah Tupper, an old Quaker woman shunned by the locals, who lives alone at the edge of the Great Meadow and who understands Kit’s feeling of estrangement. Her home becomes Kit’s refuge. But when the town’s children begin to fall ill, Hannah is accused of casting a spell on them and the townspeople come to take her away. Kit overhears their plans and runs to save Hannah, only to be accused of witchcraft herself.
The trial is harrowing because, once suspicion has been cast, enough townspeople are riled up sufficiently to press the officials “to deal with the witches” and as history has shown, the outcome is never good for the accused. In Hannah’s case, she was already under a great deal of suspicion just for being a Quaker, who didn’t go to (the Puritan) Meeting each week and who kept to herself. But in actuality, it was the townspeople who kept away from her, who never made an effort to know her, which allowed their imagination to fester. If they had visited, they would have seen her like Kit did, a kindhearted old lady who liked company, could spin a neat flax thread and made delicious corn and blueberry muffins.
Kit’s accusations were a little more complicated besides being “guilty” of associating with the Widow Tupper. There was the incident in the river, witnessed by several people of the town, when she jumped into the water to rescue a little girl’s doll. Though swimming was perfectly acceptable in Barbados, in the Colonies one of the tests for women accused of witchcraft was to see if they could float. Only if they sank did that prove their innocence. But the biggest charge against Kit was discovered in a child’s hornbook, where her name was written multiple times and was believed to be the spell or incantation that made the children sick. Fortunately, this was resolved when the little girl came forward to describe how Kit taught her how to write her name by writing it out so she could copy it. She proved right there in front of the officials she was a masterful copier, because her hand looked just like Kit’s. This emboldened some of the townspeople to come to the women’s defense and the charges against them were dropped.
This book has been challenged for promoting witchcraft and violence. But the real threat should be that it promotes ignorance, prejudice and gossip mongering. Ironically, there is no actual witchcraft in the book. It is only in the perceived notion that an old woman alone, living on the edge of town with a cat (that is not even black, btw) must be up to no good. And that when disease breaks out among the town’s children, suspicion turns on this outsider; a condition the town made itself by shunning her in the first place. The dangers of gossip, estrangement, ignorance, and beliefs about a person where there is no proof, not witchcraft, are the real lessons of the book.
And violence? The townspeople came after Hannah and burned down her home and tried to kill her cat. Instead of wanting to ban this book for violence, isn’t this another lesson of how ignorance and prejudice can get out of hand? Once you shun a neighbor and cast her as an outsider who is “not like us,” you can make her responsible for anything.
This book was published in 1958, and it is remarkable or maybe somewhat sad that it still has a message for us today. We live in a world that still practices hate mongering, racism, the shunning of people because of their “lifestyle” or culture, of people who would rather take a video than stop the crime, and there are people and institutions who have turned gossip into an art form. Is any of this productive? Does it moves us forward as a people? Far from being a book that should be banned, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs to be read and studied for its timely lessons for young people and adults alike.
(Elizabeth George Speare was an award-winning writer of historical fiction for young people. She won the Newberry Medal for both The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow, which takes place during the time of Jesus. Her attention to the details of daily life draw you into the world of her characters and the history they are living.
She is famously quoted after receiving an award, “I believe that all of us who are concerned with children are committed to the salvaging of Love and Honor and Duty.”)