I seem to be starting my year of rereading with classic children’s books. Along with Little House in the Big Woods, I also read another book about simple living in the woods: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.
Set a couple hundred years before Wilder’s book, in 1687, the book focuses on Kit Tyler, who leaves her comfortable life in Barbados when her grandfather dies and goes to live with her only relatives, in Connecticut. Used to luxury, fine clothes, and books (!), Kit struggles to find her place in the severe, hard-working Puritan community. She doesn’t know how to do any work and the neighbors look askance at her high spirits. Then one day she meets Hannah, who lives apart out in the meadow. A kind, elderly woman, Hannah is a Quaker and therefore an outcast. The rumors of her being a witch seem like nonsense–until an illness sweeps through the community and people look for someone to blame.
Kit is a likable if headstrong (and sometimes foolish) protagonist. She makes mistakes and is too sure of her own opinion and dismissive of others’ warnings, but she’s usually well-meaning at heart. And since her relatives in Connecticut work from dawn to dusk (not unlike Ma Ingalls!), I can sympathize with her struggle in her new life. It sounds exhausting–not so much the work, actually, but the absence of anything that isn’t work! The Ingalls at least seem to have fun in the evenings–although on the other hand, Kit’s family seems to have a much more active social circle.
I didn’t mention them much in the summary above, but I found Kit’s family to be engaging too. There’s the stern uncle with unexpected depths and the aunt who made her own adjustment to this life twenty years earlier. Kit also has two cousins: sweet and almost saintly Mercy, and headstrong Judith who really might have a lot in common with Kit if circumstances weren’t putting them mostly at odds.
Hannah is a lovely character too, a victim of prejudice from a lot of people who consider themselves to be highly moral. It’s a good message about tolerance. And the conclusion of the witch hunt is exciting, without being too scary for a kids’ book!
I think what I like best about this book may be the way it concludes Kit’s efforts to find a new life. She struggles and makes strides to fitting into her new community–but to a certain extent, she really never belongs because it’s just not the right place for her. I like the complexity of that conclusion. I think the more typical children’s book would have ended with Kit discovering her own role in the community. Instead, we see her make ties, grow close to individuals, but never really find a place to belong in Connecticut.
And when she realizes that, she starts making plans. That conclusion gets a little submerged behind the resolution of Kit’s love story (because there is one!) but even if things work out rather neatly in the end, I love that Kit was making plans. She’s a character who’s determined to chart her own course, in a time period where women had very few options in that regard.
It occurs to me that Katherine called Kit is something of a literary sister to Catherine called Birdy. Both girls don’t fit easily into their societies, and must make choices not only about who they will marry, but what direction their lives will take. And since I always like books with strong-willed women at their centers, I recommend both. 🙂
Buy it here: The Witch of Blackbird Pond