Friday, September 29, 2006

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

This was a Rose pick and I was happy for the selection as it was a book I had never read. Touted as a great children's classic, I had always avoided the book, in truth, because of the title. Growing up I skipped many a book with the title of "witch" in it. Sometimes justifiably so and in some cases, such as this one, not. This book, of course, is given its title from the fictional Quaker character, Hannah, whom the Puritans in the early American colony suspect of being a witch.

I have vague memories of studying the early American witch trials and unfortunately cannot remember many of the details. I found it to be a fascinating topic in high school, mostly because the "religious" people of the day were so superstitious. It was hard for me to believe that Christians - of which I believe there were - would fall prey to the idea that a person could be proved to be a witch by attempted drowning. If they could swim, they were a witch. If not, they weren't. And then it was too late. Thank goodness for The Common Laws of England is all I have to say. We are quite blessed to live under our current judiciary system, even though it seems (and proves) frustrating at times. Considering the alternative, we have much to be grateful for!

My memory being what it is, I also have only the vaguest of recollections as to what the Puritans really believed. I do recall them being excessively pious by nature and generally expressed disinterest (to abhorance) over anything remotely festive. There was a constant threat of sin in their midst which they were overly careful to avoid, in my opinion. It brings to mind the Pharasees and Sadducees of the NT era who imposed ridiculous laws which were more harmful than helpful in curtailing the possibility of sin in any person's life. Too much law and not enough grace.

Spear's book re-sparked an interest for me in early American history. The topics she deals with in The Witch of Blackbird Pond are quite fascinating.

However, I rather disliked the character of Kit Tyler. While I appreciated her distaste for the strict Puritan lifestyle, I thought Spear used her to express only what was bad about it without acknowledging any of the good. The Puritans were also hard workers, people of integrity and commitment and strove to follow after God and His will for their lives. True, I think they were a bit off the mark and rather excessive, but I wouldn't dismiss them so quickly as Spear does with Kit. Instead of appreciating the balance and virtue of the Puritans, she mocks them through Kit and brings charm to Kit's free spirit of independence. At the same time I longed for Kit to be free of the rules and regulations of the colony (and in particular, her uncle) I also wish she had showed a little more emotional respect. There's a bit too much of an Island Girl mindset for me to enjoy the character of Kit to the max.

Nevertheless, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone. I fully intend to have my own kids read it in conjunction with their studies of early America. I think this book can be used as a valuable tool to spark imagination in school studies. Imagination, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing and I think Spear has a good dose of it. Highly enjoyable read on the whole. Thanks, Rose, for the recommendation.


At 8:41 AM, Blogger Ani said...

I have to confess that I only made it through the first two chapters. Speare's inaccuracies about the Puritans disturbed me. She seems that have done little real research on the true nature of this religious group, and concentrated on perpetuating the the stereotyping begun by other authors.
There was only one major 'witch hunt', called the Salem Witch Trials. It was eventually discovered to be started by two silly and bored girls who wanted attention and a chance to start rumors about a solitary older woman. The 'trial' stirred up much talk and rumor, both of which were quickly quelled when the pastor of this particular community returned from a business trip and urged the people to get back to useful employment.
The Puritans were not overly superstitous. Remember, they were named 'Puritans' because they wanted to purify the Church of England, which at that time was in need of it. They were known for high education, a realistic view of fallen human nature, and a common sense approach to the affairs of life. This hardly describes the superstitious, miserly, and miserable group such as Speare makes her Puritan characters out to be.
Finally, the Puritants did NOT wear only gray and black. They DID wear these colors often to church, as they believed that finery in those settings would pull their thoughts away from worship. A good lesson to us all. I think that the reasoning was also that all people were of equal worth before God, and they tried to live by this in their worship. But they loved bright colors and often wore them. They saw the pleasures of feasting, dancing, etc,. as given to them by God for their enjoyment. They were reacting against many of the abuses of these pleasures, but they did not by any means believe that we should suffer through life with grim determination. After all, they started Thanksgiving, at which they feasted for three straight days! Another good lesson for us all.
I enjoyed Speare's writing style, and clever creation of characters (not to be too alliterative). But I think she abuses her own craft of writing by not doing any serious research into the true nature of the Puritans. She has listened too much to Nathaniel Hawthorne and other enemies of the Puritans.
I highly recommend Leland Ryken's Worldly Saints, a fascinating look into the Puritan mind.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Rose said...

I found the caricatures of the Puritans irritating as well (it's the one major annoyance I have with the book), as the way they are portrayed is certainly not historically accurate. However, I am able to forgive that because of the charming story and characters.

What saves the exaggeration, in my opinion, is the fact that the characters DO change and learn and grow. Kit annoys me at first with her free spirit (jumping overboard to save a wooden doll!) and is clearly the spoiled little rich girl. However, she learns to adjust, she learns to question her own proudly held beliefs, and she learns to appreciate the New England way of life after all. After making hasty judgments about the harshness of the climate, landscape, and people, she comes to realise that she loves the change of the seasons, the pace of life, and the bedrock of character that is New England.

Matthew, too, starts off auditioning for the stodgy villain, but turns out to be a real brick in the end. We mistake his sobriety and seriousness for actual meanness, but once we get to know him we see he's not stupid or malicious. I am cheering him on by the trial.

I also like the way the politics of the time are woven into the landscape, with the sharp divide between the loyalists and the conflict over the charter. It's a great starting-off point for learning more about the history of the time.

Finally, I like it that the romance is sweet, harmless, wholesome, and unexpected. The whimsy with which the author plays with the characters could have turned into a soap opera, but I never feel that way. Instead, it's charming and engaging, if not completely realistic. (I don't think you can just look into someone's face and discover who she's in love with, for instance.)

So, I don't entirely endorse the historical accuracy of the book, but I think it's a pleasant read and a thought-provoking thing to mull over. I hadn't read it for many years and enjoyed the chance to revisit it.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Carrie said...

THANKS to the both of you for your comments. Anneke, I appreciated the historical reminders. Thank you VERY much for your input. As stated in my review -- it's been so long since I've studied the Puritans and my memory is very faulty -- something that irritated me while reading because I didn't know what I should be thinking *exactly*.

Rose, thanks for your input as well. I too enjoyed it on the whole!

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Ani said...

Now that I've had my tirade and you've both told me the book ends well, I think I'll read it:)


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