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How I met my first Quaker

April 19, 2012

My daughter attends San Francisco Friends School, an independent school in the Quaker tradition. I wrote the piece that follows for the weekly newsletter.

“On a morning in mid-April, 1687, 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 for five weeks.”

I’m as hooked by that opening of The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare today as I was as an eight-year-old girl lying in bed on a summer morning. I can remember hoping that my mother wouldn’t realize that I was awake so I could, at the very least, finished the first few chapters before breakfast. By that night I’d finished the book.

Speare tells the story of high spirited Kit Tyler, who comes to America from Barbados after her grandfather dies and immediately raises suspicions when she jumps into a river and swims to rescue a child’s doll. She is in a foreign place with foreign values, among Puritans, who suspect her of being a witch. Because I am the daughter of immigrant parents, I completely identified with Kit’s confusion and loneliness. But my daughter, born and raised in San Francisco, and my daughter’s friends, as well as countless other girls and boys over the years, have understood Kit, and loved Kit’s story, too. Growing up, everyone experiences social situations where they feel like the outsider.

In this new and harsh place, Kit feels isolated and rejected until one day, on a walk with her cousin, she comes to a beautiful grassy land. As Kit wishes to return to the Meadows alone some day, the narrator provides a preview: “How often she would come back she had no way of foreseeing, nor could she know that never, in the months to come, would the Meadows break the promise they held for her at this moment, a promise of peace and quietness…”  Kit sees a small house in the far corner, with a gentle whisp of smoke curling from its lopsided chimney.

“Oh, that’s Widow Tupper,” her cousin Judith tells her.  “People say she’s a witch.”

Even eight-year-old readers intuit the parallels and know that Kit has found someone who will help her. What they can’t know yet is that Hannah Tupper is a Quaker.

The next time Kit is in crisis, she runs to the meadow, cries herself out, and is comforted by the grasses and the sun. When she sits up, she sees “a very old woman with short-cropped white hair and faded, almost colorless eyes set deep in an incredibly wrinkled face.”  Hannah Tupper tells Kit that the meadow will cure her troubled heart, and invites Kit to her home, where the water is deliciously cold, where the small room is “scoured as a seashell” and the corncakes she’s fed are studded with blueberries and washed down with fresh goat’s milk.

If you haven’t read the novel (or seen it performed at SFFS this fall), I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that Hannah Tupper becomes an important person in Kit’s life, demonstrating Quaker values in such a positive way that Kit even asks if she can become a Quaker.

I’m sure that when I was a child reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I could not only taste those blueberries bursting warm in my mouth, but I also felt less lonely, accepted and understood, in the presence of Hannah Tupper.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul corroborates this feeling with evidence from scientific studies. Apparently, simply reading about blueberries would have made my olfactory cortex light up. Recent findings in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology demonstrate that we experience fiction as, well, real. “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

The beauty of novels is that they can take us even one step further. Through a narrator, we learn what is going on inside a character—inside her head and heart and body. We can think what a character is thinking and feel what she is feeling in a way that we can’t in real life, where even the people closest to us remain opaque.

Researchers using fMRIs “concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.” It turns out that people who read more fiction are better able to understand the people around them. In other words, Hannah Tupper not only soothed my loneliness; she taught me to be a more empathetic person.

Apparently, to my expanding neural networks, it made no meaningful difference that the first Quaker I met existed only in words on a page. The lessons she taught me and Kit about the values of the Quaker tradition have only grown more true over time.

Other books with Quaker characters

The Friendly Persuasion, by Jessamyn West

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Mrs. Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, by Marilyn Nelson and Elizabeth Alexander

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    April 30, 2012 8:00 am

    Karen, This is beautiful! I haven’t read this book, but it’s now on my list. Thank you, Mary

  2. amanda permalink
    August 1, 2012 4:21 pm

    the widow tucker was the first quaker i ever met too, karen…at pretty much the same age…and i experienced just what you described. i’ve taught that book to many kids now and nearly everyone has warmed to her — and is all the more receptive to outsiders for this.

    • August 1, 2012 5:09 pm

      That’s one of the books that developed my imagination, I think. The Secret Garden’s another. Thanks for reading!

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