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In mid-April, 1687, Katherine “Kit” Tyler nears the end of her voyage aboard the Dolphin brigantine from her birthplace in Barbados to her first visit to North America. Kit’s initial excitement wavers as the shoreline comes into view at the dreary port of Saybrook, Connecticut. The captain’s son, Nathaniel “Nat” Eaton, asks Kit what she thinks of his home. The contrast with the tropical plantation of her wealthy upper-class grandfather disheartens Kit. Hopeful to glimpse America’s possibilities, she accompanies the crew, who take Mistress Eaton, Nat’s mother, to shore in a longboat before proceeding on the journey’s final leg to Wethersfield, where Kit’s family lives.
Returning to the Dolphin, Kit shares the boat with passengers also traveling to Wethersfield: the Cruff family—husband, wife, and little Prudence—and John Holbrook, a young divinity student under the tutelage of Wethersfield’s Reverend Gershom Bulkeley. When Prudence accidentally drops her treasured doll into the water, the passengers’ indifference to the child’s distress infuriates Kit, so she dives into the water to retrieve the doll. Kit’s ability to swim scandalizes Prudence’s mother, Goodwife Cruff. Later, John explains to Kit that Puritans associate a woman’s ability to float with witchcraft. Captain Eaton, Nat, and John attempt to mollify Goodwife Cruff’s accusations, but Kit remains unsettled by this conflict with her new community.
The Dolphin takes nine days to sail the forty-three miles from Saybrook to Wethersfield, beset by poor sailing conditions. Kit observes and interacts with her fellow passengers and confronts harsh realities outside her experience of life. She watches the Cruff parents withhold food and companionship at meals from their daughter Prudence. She listens as John talks about lowering his aspirations based on financial circumstances. She tells John of the deaths of her parents and her grandfather raising her and encounters John’s judgment of her grandfather’s care as neglect of proper parenting.
When Kit complains about the stench in the ship from transporting horses, Nat explains that his father chooses to transport livestock over slaves and reprimands Kit for her naivete about the slave trade. As the passengers finally disembark at Wethersfield, Goodwife Cruff forbids Kit any further contact with Prudence. When Kit’s aunt and uncle, Rachel and Matthew Wood, don’t show up to collect her, Kit confesses to Captain Eaton that she never told them she was coming. Kit assumed based on the glowing memories her mother shared with Kit’s grandfather about her sister that she would be welcomed. Captain Eaton and Nat escort Kit to her aunt and uncle’s home along with her seven trunks of belongings.
From the outset of the novel, Kit’s disappointed observations about her new surroundings and her many social missteps characterize her as an outsider. It is clear Kit does not fully understand the judgmental social landscape of Puritan New England when she jumps into the river to retrieve Prudence’s lost doll. Kit’s impulsivity and spirited nature contrast sharply with the attitudes of her new neighbors. The fact that Kit isn’t worried about ruining her fine silk dress by jumping into the river shocks them and emphasizes Kit’s wealth and frivolity in comparison to the Puritan values of austerity and restraint. Further characterizing Kit as an outsider is Goodwife Cruff’s accusation that Kit’s ability to swim makes her a witch. This introduces the idea that thinking or acting differently in Puritan society is tantamount to witchcraft, and Kit’s continual characterization as an outsider ominously foreshadows the events of the novel’s climax.
Kit’s burgeoning relationships in these early chapters introduce the central theme of friendship as a place of growth and exploration. These relationships provide a contrast between Kit’s privileged, permissive childhood and the austere Puritan upbringings of her fellow travelers. John Holbrook’s descriptions of studying by candlelight and struggling to finance his education embarrass Kit, who has always been financially comfortable. Conversely, John is scandalized to learn of her unstructured childhood spent running freely along beaches, being cared for by slaves, and learning to read from books of history, poetry, and plays instead of the Bible. However, he also listens compassionately as Kit describes her grief over losing her grandfather.
Conversations with the captain’s son, Nat Eaton, force Kit to reckon with her sheltered, privileged notions about how the world works. While Nat shows compassion for Kit’s social floundering and her homesickness, he makes her uncomfortable by pointing out the immorality of transporting African slaves. This forces Kit to admit to herself that she’d never considered how slaves were brought to her grandfather’s plantation. Kit’s self-reflection and compassion are ignited as she observes Prudence’s spirited nature despite the mistreatment she endures from her parents. Kit realizes with regret that her impulsivity caused them to take Prudence’s doll away. Further highlighting her impulsivity is the revelation that Kit’s aunt and uncle are not expecting her. These interactions set the novel up as a bildungsroman as Kit’s new experiences and relationships teach her to adapt and mature.