I've always been kind of interested in the Puritans - probably because I have a bunch of Puritan ancestors. Many of these men had cool names like Obadiah, Nathaniel, Abram, and Azariah, and the women had even more exotic names: Comfort, Persis, Jerusha, Fear, and (my personal favorite) Mindwell.
And I know that I read this book as a child or adolescent - I remember the cover very well (it was the gothic 70's one above). It sat on my bookshelf for years, next to the other "non-favorites" (like Island of the Blue Dolphins).
But despite my interest in the Puritans and history, before re-reading of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, all I could remember about it was that the heroine's name was Kit and that the Puritans suspected that old ladies who lived by themselves were witches.
I don't know why I didn't really like this story as a child, because this time around I really enjoyed it. I think this is the first time I've totally changed my childhood opinions on any of these books. And I think that The Witch holds up very well, considering it was published in 1958. If I didn't know how old it was, I could easily assume The Witch of Blackbird Pond was written ten years ago instead of nearly fifty years ago.
The characters in The Witch are all interesting, complicated people, with lots of shades of gray in them (instead of the absolutes you might expect of the sadly stereotyped Puritans), and there is suspense, romance, and a lot of good history. I think Speare does a rather wonderful job of balancing an interesting story with complex history.
There's a witchcraft scare, but there's also good description of the religious and political differences amongst the colonists (I never knew about the Connecticut charter), slavery, and the sheer amount of work involved just to survive in the late 1600's in New England. The Indians get rather short shrift in The Witch, in historical terms, but maybe Native-European relations would be better served in different book, anyway.
On one of the coldest days of the year here in Michigan, I particularly enjoyed Speare's description of Kit's first winter after her arrival from Barbados:
January dragged by, and February. It was the hardest winter most of the townspeople could remember. Old people shook their heads, recalling blizzards of their childhood, but it was impossible for Kit to visualize anything more bleak than this first winter of her experience. She no longer saw any beauty in a world muffled in white. She hated the long days of imprisonment, when there was nothing to see through the window but shifting curtains of pale gray, when drifts stood waist high on the doorstep, and it took hours of backbreaking labor to carve a passage to the well. She hated the drafty floors and frigid corners, and the perpetual animal reek of heavy clothes hung about the fireplace to dry.
Every night she shrank from the moment when she and Judith must make the dread ascent to the upstairs chamber with only the meager comfort of a warming pan. But impatient as she was with the long days indoors, the outdoors promised only aching misery. She resented the arduous preparation for the journey to Meeting, the heavy leather boots, the knit socks drawn over them, the clumsy little footstove they had to lug all the way, that cooled off long before the sermon was finished and left one to sit with stinging fingers and toes, while the breath of the whole congregation rose like the smoke from so many pipes (p. 234-5).
I think older kids (especially girls) would enjoy this more than younger Newbery readers, especially given the romantic part of the plot, but there's nothing inappropriate for an interested third or fourth grader. But encourage your kid(s) to try it again when they're 14 or 15 - they might like it more then.