As I tried to reclaim a reading life leading up to and right after the birth of my twins, a friend recommended I stick to reading young adult fiction. Perhaps in an attempt to regress to my own childhood, I picked up a book I remembered fondly: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.
The New England witch hunts endure as a fascinating piece of history, and before I graduated to The Crucible, The Witch of Blackbird Pond whet my appetite for fiction about the era. Set in the late 1800s, this coming-of-age story follows the orphan Kit from her home in Barbados to a Puritan community in Connecticut. The death of her beloved father and a distasteful suitor have forced her to go to America, and Kit is grudgingly taken into her aunt’s family as something of a Cinderella. Although her aunt and one of the sisters are kind to Kit, her fiery uncle and other competitive cousin make her life particularly difficult. Kit’s loneliness prompts her into a friendship with an older widow, Hannah Tupper, who the community believes to be a witch.
For readers who enjoy portraits of everyday life in a different time period, like Civil War era New England in Little Women or the American frontier in Little House on the Prairie, this glimpse of 17th century New England will be a good fit. Alongside Kit’s individual story, Speare brings the political and religious issues of the time to light by using the community’s persecution of Hannah Tupper as a specific example of how the Puritan settlers persecuted the Quakers. Kit’s uncle, Matthew, is deeply involved in early American politics. His passionate commitment to the right of Americans to govern themselves and his desire to break free from England foreshadows the American Revolution.
The most powerful reason this story resonates is the fact that both Kit and Hannah are outsiders in a community where everyone is expected to conform. The Puritans go to church every Sunday and live a life of hard labor, and they persecute and ostracize anyone who wants to live outside that rigid structure. No matter the time period or specifics, the outsider story endures and appeals to most children and teens.
By the end of the book, both Kit and Hannah find a place in the world that finally makes sense and allows them to pursue their own versions of happiness. It’s a hopeful ending that promises good things can come after the struggles of coming of age. As my husband and I welcomed our babies into the world after a difficult twin pregnancy, I found renewal in The Witch of Blackbird Pond in a completely different way than when I read it as a teenager. We’re all still growing up, no matter how old we get.