Saturday, July 3, 2010

Island girl

In preparation for an annual educator training we do at my library where we talk about the recent crop of books for young readers, I've been reading a boatload of historical fiction. When I was a young reader, I loved historical fiction (and still do), but I think that most kids today view it with a kind of dread. Too much information, not enough action? Me, I like the info I learn about another time and place, and I'm pretty sure that I read Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was younger, perhaps even when I was living in Massachusetts just a short distance away from the novel's Connecticut setting.

Mrs. Speare won her first (of two) Newbery Medal for this story of Kit Tyler, who -- after the death of her wealthy grandfather -- gets herself from Barbados to Weatherfield, Connecticut on the good ship Dolphin hoping to find a new home with her aunt and uncle. Reluctantly, but recognizing that they are her only relations, they take her in and try to mold Kit into a proper Puritan daughter. Independent and well-read, Kit doesn't fit into Weatherfield society easily, despite the attentions she receives from one of its wealthier citizens. She acquiesces to the courtship believing she can regain her independence with marriage.

Kit meets Hannah, an old woman living alone at the edge of Blackbird Pond; but she realizes that she must keep this friendship a secret, as Hannah is a Quaker, a faith regarded as anathema by the Puritans. Hannah's presence in Weathersfield is barely tolerated, as many citizens believe Hannah to be a witch. When sickness strikes Weathersfield, the Puritans search for a scapegoat and when Kit's association with Hannah is revealed, they think they've found one.

I loved the descriptions in this novel -- the hot, sweaty journey on the Dolphin up the river to Weathersfield, the marshy fields that lead to Blackbird Pond, Hannah's cozy cottage, the cornshucking party, Kit's first snow, and the many brief, but evocative, character descriptions that sum up a person so memorably.

The actress Mary Beth Hurt reads the novel. She's got a nice husky voice that she uses to good effect to portray the headstrong (yet slightly dim) Kit, her unhappy cousin Judith, as well as the stalwart young seaman, Nat. Hurt reads the many adult characters with nice differentiation -- stiff, solemn Uncle Matthew, kindly Hannah, pompous suitor William. There's a young child in the story, Prudence, who is properly childish without sounding babyish.

I downloaded this from the library and the sound quality was pretty bad. It was tinny and reverberant at the same time. It took me a while to get through this novel, because the audiobooks download one disc as one track and for some reason I kept losing my place. I listened to several sections more than once. No wonder I didn't want to get out of bed at the crack of dawn!

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Narrated by Mary Beth Hurt
Listening Library, 2003. 6:33 (unabridged)

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