Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads Elizabeth George Speare's 1958 young adult novel 'The Witch Of Blackbird Pond', in which Kit Tyler, a hothouse flower from Barbados, goes to the Colonies and learns the perils of actually knowing how to swim.
ON A MORNING in mid-April, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook Harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land in five weeks.
"There's Connecticut colony," a voice spoke in her ear. "You've come a long way to see it."
Ahhh! Don't talk in my ear. For whatever reason, for the first time in my Fine Lines career, the story of Kit Tyler was completely excised from my brain. I couldn't tell you why. I've only read it, like, 34 times, and the yellow spine of the cover I had — a dark, moony head rising up mistily from a swamp—is ineluctably seared in its place on my 8-year-old bookshelf. I mean, I think I read it as recently as a few years ago after stealing it from a doctor's office's waiting room or something.
But I don't mind that my poor, compromised brain had hodgepodged it in with some story of a father being tarred and feathered during the Revolution, a T.V. movie where a young girl accused of witchcraft gets felt up by her examining judge and a redhead cross-dressing her way across the country during the Gold Rush. (Yeah, anyone's guess there.) Because upon reread, like some annoying little brother who keeps repeating everything you say exactly as you say it, my memory kept catching up with the text in front of me until the entire read was but one self-pleasuring session of deja vu.
Viz, the following: The Dolphin! (Always ital'd.) "Turn back, Captain! Twill be an easy enough thing to catch." Tarring and feathering. (Shit. Wrong book.) A blueberry corncake and a kitten; Hannah's cure for all ills. Diamond-paned windows. A hornbook. A green silk dress. A soft blue shawl. A red ear of corn. Staggering in from the cold to put your head in Mercy's lap. Sprinkling the floor with sand. Her thin face transformed by the bonnet. Prudence Cruff. Nat. Goody Cruff! Stocks. A dirty blanket thrust through an opening. Kit! Frippery! Quakers! Livestock frozen in place! The Dolphin! Nat! Kit! Kit! Nat!
But back to the story. Kit Tyler, orphan, is the kind of character flap-copy writers live to call "headstrong." Raised in Barbados by her grandfather after the death of her parents, she has come to Colonial Weathersfield, Connecticut, after his death to live with her aunt Rachel, her mother's sister, whom she's never met. Raised reading Shakespeare with her grandfather and frolicking in the blue waters under swaying palm trees, she's been forced to sell off all the property and its attendant hundred slaves — even her own Negro girl! — to pay off her grandfather's debts and gain passage on the ship.
All of this, as you can imagine, goes over TREMENDOUSLY with the Puritan settlers, whom she manages to horrify before even setting foot on land when she dives overboard to rescue a young girl's doll:
"Such water!" she gasped. "I never dreamed water could be so cold!"
She shook back her wet hair, her cheeks glowing. But her laughter died away at the sight of all of their faces. Shock and horror and unmistakable anger stared back at her. Even Nathaniel's young face was dark with rage.
"You must be daft," the woman hissed. "To jump into the river and ruin those clothes!"
Kit tossed her head. "Bother the clothes! They'll dry. Besides, I have plenty of others."
"Then you might have had a thought for somebody else!" snapped Nat, slapping the water out of his dripping breeches. These are the only clothes I have."
Aw....shit. Goddamnit, Kit! That's your love interest, yo! But don't worry — as a narrative convention to prevent us from realizing he's your love interest too soon, the author is going to make him give you shit up to the penultimate page. Here he is, like, two pages later:
I'll wager you're wishing you'd never left Barbados," he said. "'Twas unfair of me to tease you."
"How I envied you!" she exclaimed. "To get into that water and away from this filthy ship for even a moment!"
In a split second a squall darkened Nat's blue eyes. "Filthy—the Dolphin?"
"Oh," she laughed impatiently, "I know you're forever scrubbing. But that stable smell! I'll never get it out of my hair for as long as I love!"
Nat's indignation found vent in scorn. "Maybe you think it would smell prettier with a hold full of human bodies, half of them rotting in their chains before anyone knew they were dead!"
Goddamn Nat. That's cold. Luckily, Kit, once you hit land to join the somber household of your aunt Rachel, her husband Matthew, and their daughters Judith and Mercy, this whole scrubbing thing is about to loom large enough in your life that you'll forget about Nat for awhile.
At month two of Fine Lines, I am convinced more than ever that once the great global climactic catastrophe has destroyed the earth (you know, two weeks from now), when the stragglers dig themselves out from their damp bomb-shelter hovels and go hardcore low-tech, Jezebel readers will make up the core of the new society...because we are the only ones who will find this shit fun. Here's Kit on her first day in her new household:
By the end of the first day the word useful had taken on alarming meaning. Work in that household never ceased, and it called for skill and patience, qualities Kit did not seem to possess. There was meat to be chopped, and vegetables to prepare for midday meal. The pewter mugs had to be scoured with reeds and fine sand. There was a great kettle of soap boiling over a fire just behind the house, and all day long Judith and her mother took turns stirring it with a long stick....Kit tried to keep a gingerly distance from the kettle....Her stirring became more and more half-hearted till Judith snatched the sick in exasperation. "It will lump on you," she scolded, "and you can just blame yourself if we have to use lumpy soap all summer."
But I don't want to go too much more into Colonial porn (oh, all right, here's a bone from when Kit unpacks her seven trunks and Judith is consumed with envy at what passes for daily wear in Barbados: "Imagine!" dried Judith, pulling out a handsome gown of filmy silk. "Five slits in the sleeves!") because the actual plot is such a vibrant machine that you don't want to waste all the time on sensual trappings...like, you know, someone sometimes does.
Kit arrives in Weathersfield during the beginning of the Puritan colonists' breakaway from England, and I am ashamed to admit that my deeply uneven public-school education and the fact that I studied this roughly a quarter-century ago forced me to take a brief Google-powered refresher course on what Puritans were, exactly, etc. For any other needful parties, they can be differentiated from Pilgrims in that they were AUTHORITARIAN;"PURIFIED" THE CHURCH FROM WITHIN/ PROSECUTED AND EXECUTED FOR WITCHCRAFT/INTOLERANT. Crucial 911! More Google-searching on the historical figure Governor Andros, who walks through the narrative, reveals that the novel takes place in the year 1687. Well played, Interwebs.
As we soon learn, Kit has been forced to leave Barbados not only because she is now penniless, but because a friend of her late grandfather's with "pudgy red fingers with too many rings on them" wanted to forgive the debt and marry her instead. Not so much. But not so fast with escaping from the wealthy, stocky suitors, either! Kit soon catches the eye of William Ashby, one of the wealthiest young men in town, unwittingly tearing him from the hands of Judith. Judith doesn't care, however, because Kit has brought along a new friend in the form of handsome scholar John Holbrook, and she "sets her cap" for him, inconveniently failing to realize that he is desperately in love with her gentle sister Mercy, who no one really notices because she's so pure-hearted and crippled and everything.
Taking place outside the environs of Weathersfield Place is, of course, the formation of America as we know it — complete with Indians, Quaker separatists, Royalists, Puritans, slaves, and the explosion of persecution and resistance betwixt and between. (The majority of which makes it unsurprising that settlers might go a little nuts and seek to mitigate their anxiety by seeing if a woman floats before killing her and all.) What's wonderful about Witch — and what distinguishes it, I think, from the American Girl novels I like to flog unmercifully because I don't think novels should have branded stores with cafes that serve things like "American Girl Pasta" — is that the narrative isn't a flimsy cover for a history lesson, and neither is Kit is not a stand-in for heroic, spunky girls resisting the powers-that-be everywhere.
True, Kit tutors poor Prudence Cruff and makes friends with Hannah Tupper, the older Quaker woman. But she's also a former slaveowner who seriously considers marrying William Ashby simply to escape the cycle of hard labor of her uncle's house. She acts impulsively, which means she saves people with her kindness, but she also endangers them at the same time. Yes, she takes Prudence Cruff away from the poverty of her upbringing and teaches her to read, but she also nearly closes Mercy's school. Yes, she saves Hannah from the angry mob who comes to torch her house, but her visits are partly what has drawn attention to the woman in the first place. Yes, she's brave to go see Hannah, but she also exposes her entire aunt's family to the condemnation of the community. But worst of all, even though Elizabeth George Speare mentions that Nat's eyes are twinkling and blue and smiling and that William Ashby is stocky a million times, Kit takes like 900 years to figure out she's in love with him.
By the time Nat has saved her from hanging in a courthouse scene reminiscent of those boardroom wrap-ups in 80s movies like The Secret of My Success, we've truly grown to love Kit and her surrounding cast, not in spite of their flaws or for their lack of flaws but for how truly they all embody the contradictions of their time. In other words, it is all right, my dears, if you jump overboard in all of your clothes to save a young girl's wooden dolly like a dumbass, too. FYI, I am available to make soap, tutor worthy children and be confounded by any suitors at first light.
Earlier: Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
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