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the witch of blackbird pond

7 february 2011

Newbery Medalists typically feature a feisty 12-year-old orphan girl who comes to a new town and conquers the community with pluck and a penchant for reading books. Elizabeth George Speare's Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) departs from type by giving us a feisty 16-year-old orphan girl who comes to a new town and conquers the community with pluck and a penchant for reading books.

I kid, but the difference, within the highly nuanced field of juvenile literature, is considerable. The Witch of Blackbird Pond wouldn't win the Newbery Medal in the 2010s; in fact, it probably wouldn't be published today without considerable revision to fit one of the market niches that drive contemporary book marketing.

At 16, Kit Tyler is ready for marriage. And not just because it's the year 1687 in frontier Connecticut, but because she's simply grown up. Many 17th-century folkways and Puritan ideas are presented in Witch as being dated to the point of cultural absurdity. But love and courtship at age 16 are not. The novel's innocent matter-of-factness about young adulthood makes it, paradoxically, a bit of a scandal in terms of 21st-century juvenile literature, which is honor-bound to strongly discourage "kids having kids."

Of course, The Witch of Blackbird Pond isn't about teen pregnancy; it's about teen romance, in a historical setting that gives plenty of vivid context to a young woman's romantic choices. Teen romances no longer win Newbery Medals, which are now reserved strictly for books aimed at grade-school audiences. And nowadays, books about sexually mature young women are Young Adult fictions, cordoned off in a genre full of the tense gravitas of growing up too fast.

It's refreshing, then, to get in the time machine and go back to 1958, when books about girls considering marriage were acceptable, even honorable, fare for preteen readers. And really, why not? The Witch of Blackbird Pond is mildly pre-feminist, in that marriage, or at least the banns thereof, concludes the tale of Kit Tyler and her cousins Judith and Mercy. But it's hardly a book that limits its young women's horizons. (The colonial setting helps here; women do essential work in the rudimentary frontier economy, and the title character in particular lives a feisty, independent widowed existence.) And certainly the theme of finding the right life partner hasn't dated in 50 years. Kit and her cousins are avatars of the young women in Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë who make similar rational choices – and are similarly beloved by young readers.

And I think, via unscientific survey, that Speare's novel was and is still beloved by readers. The most popular news I ever posted on Facebook was that I was reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond. At least seven different people Liked the announcement, and several of them elaborated in comments about how much they loved the book. I should elaborate: seven different women. For some reason the book didn't attract comments from the guys in the stathead baseball community, or even from male English professors. Gender has divided and still divides child readers, and it's been much of the work of my adult professional life to catch up with the books that growing up male led me to avoid.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond draws from many influences. The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, certainly, but also Esther Forbes's Mirror for Witches, a less-remembered but equally incisive fiction about Puritan paranoia. There's a little bit of Jamaica Inn in the mix (orphaned woman claims kin of a scary uncle and his longsuffering wife). There's a certain amount of Caddie Woodlawn and its kindred, books about free spirits on the frontier. It also makes the standard pitch to the juries of librarians who choose Medalists:

"Do you call reading work? I don't even remember how I learned. When it was too hot to play, Grandfather would take me into his library where it was dark and cool, and read to me out loud from his books, and later I would sit beside him and read to myself while he studied." (24-25)

Naturally, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is lighter than its fraught precursors, but it's serious fare for the just-post-McCarthy years in America, and it pulls no punches about the idiocy of witch hunts. It's a severely rationalist and humanist text – and it has a heart, too. No wonder it's fondly remembered by so many grown-up kids.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. 1958. New York: Dell, 1972.