Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Chapter 4: Family dynamics, oh, my!

The chapter opens with Rachel heading off to take some food to a neighbor in need -- which, Judith explains, means she's going to do all the neighbor's housework too.

Needless to say, Judith is not a big supporter of her mother's charitable habits. Mercy, on the other hand, thinks it makes perfect sense. And besides, there's work to be done.

But wait! First, there are dresses.

Judith convinces Kit to open her trunks and show off some of the fashions she brought from Barbados. There's still no real affection between these two, but they're teenage girls, so clothes are sort of a universal language.

It is, unfortunately, a language not spoken by most fathers -- including Matthew.
"Her uncle regarded her with scorn. 'No one in my family has any use for such frippery,' he said coldly. 'Nor are we beholden to anyone's charity for our clothing.'"
But Kit does manage to score half a point -- or maybe just a quarter of one -- by convincing Matthew to let her give Mercy a very plain wool shawl. And a bit of authorial hand-waving alerts us to the fact that Mercy is pretty much the hub of the Wood family.
"Very well. Mercy may keep the shawl."
And then Kit's score goes deep into negative territory, because her question, when the rest of the family starts talking about the chores that have to get done, is, "Don't the servants do that?"

Setting aside slightly contentious aspects of using "servant" in a New England setting, 1 the answer to that is a big no. So Kit learns to work.

There's carding to be done, for one thing. And as much as Kit totally despises it, we've got Mercy's placid acceptance of the task to serve as a counterpoint.
"How dreary it must be for her, working here day after day. Kit was ashamed of her own impatience."
Also, there's scrubbing and cooking and more fun stuff ahead. But putting Kit and Mercy together at a sedentary activity gives Speare a chance to build up a bit more backstory. Here we get to learn more about why exactly Kit left Barbados, and the man she had the opportunity to marry:
"He was very kind. But Mercy, he was fifty years old, and he had pudgy red fingers with too many rings on them."
Willing to basically buy a wife? Okay. But unattractive hands are a deal-breaker.

In the course of heading up to bed that night, Kit overhears a bit of a conversation that introduces another aspect of the Wood family's dysfunctions:
"Yes, a boy would have been different, that's true. Poor Matthew!"
For my part, I think this makes the Kit's-not-a-boy thing sound like a much bigger deal than it actually turns out to be -- it's really never a factor in the plot. But we'll return to it in a future chapter, for a bit more background information.

One other thing to mention at the end of this chapter. Speare is not noted for her sensitive treatment of native characters in her books (see Debbie Reese's blog if you require an explanation), and although there are no native characters in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, we do get several mentions of them. The first one is here.
"The long eerie noise sounded again. Indians?"

1 Setting it aside mainly because I'm not sure whether it applies to the early colonial period, when there was a much closer connection to the English class structure. But in the late colonial/early Federal periods, free-born white Americans did not want to think of themselves as servants. Bill Bryson cites one instance of a maid explaining to a foreign visitor that she was her employer's "help," not his servant, and Fanny Trollope totally goes off on the servant question in Domestic Manners of the Americans. (Which book deserves its own post -- there was a serious bite in that woman's prose!)

(Post pic: Cheating a little, since this dress is from about twenty years after the book is set; courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's amazing collection database.)


CLM said...

Loving your read! I may have mentioned this to you already but my niece's 6th grade class read this not long ago and the girls found it so sad the teacher allowed them to write alternative endings. I thought that was an interesting teaching approach.

Sarah Rettger said...

Thanks, C! That's interesting -- I certainly wouldn't call this a sad ending.

But I do have fond memories of being allowed to write alternate endings to some of the books I read in school (notably, giving the kid in The Light in the Forest a potential girlfriend), so I'm all for that!

CLM said...

The girls felt it was sad for Hannah!