Since its publication in 1958, The Witch of Blackbird Pond has been reviewed or commented on many times, almost always favorably. Critiques range from nearly generic praise of the novel as an example of the right thing to use to teach young readers, as was the case in Christopher de Vinck’s 1987 op-ed piece on the subject in TheNew York Times, to praise of the novel simply for its entertainment value, as was the case in the anonymous 2003 review of the novel’s reissue in the School Library Journal.
When critics get more specific, their praise touches on several aspects of the novel. Critics who have some historical distance from Witch, such as Steve Eikenbery, writing for the English Journal in 1992, praise the novel for the “prescience of the author.” Almost a decade earlier (in 1987), Mary-Helen Thuente also discussed the novel for the English Journal; Thuente set out to explain the novel’s power and success, and argued that these came from Speare’s ability to balance the demands of realistic historical fiction with aspects of the folktale, arguing that “the meticulously detailed historical background and the character study of the heroine enrich a young adult novel emotionally and intellectually, but Speare has also written a masterfully structured work of art with the symmetry, symbolism, and universality of the folktale.”
Most critics, though, emphasize the first two elements—historical realism and character development—in their commendation of the novel. This is certainly true in the main book-length study of Speare published; scholar of children’s literature Marilyn Fain Apseloff focuses there and singles out two more elements for specific praise. Apseloff argues that Speare is especially adept at building suspense through foreshadowing in both structure and dialogue and, more importantly, that Speare makes a point of emphasizing values in her work in ways...
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1. The Nature of Freedom
What does it mean to be free? While The Witch of Blackbird Pond focuses on the personal, it is impossible for anyone in a colonial setting, even a young woman like Kit, to pursue her personal desires without running into the question of what it means to be free. This is first brought home to her when she jumps in the water. Physical activity, specifically swimming, is something she had taken for granted, but in her new home swimming brings fear and social disapproval. A simple act, thoughtlessly taken, leads directly to Kit’s eventual trial for witchcraft. In other areas, Kit’s new home seems lacking in freedom as well; she has to go to two worship services in a day, whether she wants to do so or not, and she has to work like she never did in Barbados. It seems to Kit that to be free she will either have to escape, through marrying William, or accept isolation, as Hannah does. What is freedom, then, in this new colonial world? What does it mean to be free?
2. The Cost of Freedom
Closely related to the question of what it means to be free are these questions: what does it cost to be free, and who pays that cost? Kit’s leisure in the West Indies was purchased in part through the labor of her slaves. In her uncle’s eyes, the “freedom” she knew from regular worship services would also have a cost, namely her eternal soul. Likewise, the freedom Kit has had from thinking about certain ideas (slavery, the rights of the king, what it means to be a subject) is purchased with passivity and ignorance. To learn about these topics is to experience new responsibilities in regards to them. One might say that every freedom in the novel comes with a price, whether it is Nat risking being whipped or Matthew Wood having to eat his pride. What, then, is Speare saying about the nature of freedom? A more complex version of that question might be to argue that Speare is saying...
(The entire section is 740 words.)