The Witch of Blackbird Pond. One of my favorites, but it's not like I dug it out of a slush pile somewhere. Elizabeth George Speare won the 1959 Newbery Medal,1 so I'm pretty sure the librarians thought it was rather good too.
So for this series, we're not just going to talk about the plot, we're going to look at what Speare did to make this the most distinguished book for children of its year.
(And then at the end we're going to look at what makes it a children's book in the first place, or what doesn't. Stay tuned.)
My plan is for these posts to go up every Wednesday, which means the discussion will last well into the warmer months,2 but knowing my blogging habits, I'm not making any promises, y'know?
Here's the opening line of the book:
"On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor."Speare wasn't playing the must-have-dramatic-hook line, but it's effective enough, since we're not left wondering about the where and when. It's historical fiction, and it's up-front about that.
We meet two characters straight off: protagonist Kit Tyler, and "Nathaniel Eaton, first mate, but his mother called him Nat."
Guess who's gonna play an important role in the story?
That's true for many of the characters introduced in the first few pages, but not all of them -- Mistress Eaton, for instance, leaves the ship at Wethersfield, and although she's mentioned in passing, she's never onstage again.
Speaking of Wethersfield:
"Kit hesitated. She didn't want to admit how disappointing she found this first glimpse of America."I was a Connecticut girl for almost two decades. I love many things about the state. Beaches, however, are not something we do well. I expect that was even more true 300-plus years ago. However, we get a hint that things are not all bad in the New World:
"Kit glanced again at the forbidding shore. She could see nothing about it to put such a twinkle of anticipation in anyone's eye. Could there be some charm that was not visible from out here in the harbor?"Once Kit is on dry land for the first time in five weeks, we get another first. Start counting the number of times "Sir Francis Tyler's granddaughter" shows up in the text.
"Embarrassment was a new sensation for Kit. No one on the island had ever presumed to stare like that at Sir Francis Tyler's granddaughter."Kit's left her home of Barbados for a country where, to the best of her knowledge, no one has even heard of Sir Francis Tyler, but she completely defines herself through her paternal lineage. Which is sure to go over well when she moves in with her mother's relatives, no?
In the course of returning to the boat, Kit manages to get herself in a bit of trouble by jumping overboard to rescue the doll dropped by her fellow passenger Prudence Cruff. Prudence's mother, Goodwife Cruff, doesn't much want anyone getting in the way of her child-rearing (otherwise known as child abuse), and all the New Englanders are put out to see that Kit not only acts on her own when both the captain and Goodwife Cruff are willing to abandon the doll, but also swims. Which at least some of them consider evidence of witchcraft.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call "foreshadowing."
Before the chapter ends, we meet one more key character: "I am John Holbrook, bound for Wethersfield, which I learn is your destination as well."
We'll learn more about John as the story progresses, but that first line gives a fairly good picture of him. Yes, Kit was first drawn to him because he smiled at her when everyone else was glaring, but there's a certain -- stiffness? stodginess? something -- about him.
John and Kit have a bit of an argument about the relative merits of Barbados and Puritanism, and we get another glimpse of how just maybe Kit doesn't know what she's gotten herself into.
1 For everyone keeping track, this was Speare's first win. She also got the medal in 1962 for The Bronze Bow, and took a silver sticker in 1984 for The Sign of the Beaver.
2 The problem with leaving WBUR on all day at the store was the number of times we had to listen to the anchor inform us that today's weather was "bitterly cold." Yes, it was.3
3 Shut up, Midwesterners. For us soft New England urbanites, it totally was.