A young Englishwoman, Katherine “Kit” Tyler, sails from the island country of Barbados to North America in 1687 to start a new life. Captain Eaton and his son Nat operate the merchant vessel Dolphin. Their international trading route includes the Connecticut community of Wethersfield, where Kit’s uncle and aunt, Matthew and Rachel Wood, live with their daughters, Judith and Mercy. At sixteen years old, Kit is homeless; she has liquidated her grandfather’s estate after his death to pay his plantation debts. Kit’s grandfather, Sir Francis Tyler, raised her on the tropical plantation from an early age when both of her parents drowned. Kit’s only relatives—the Woods—live in Connecticut Colony, and she hopes to join their household.
Kit’s first glimpse of the Connecticut settlements disheartens her. The rich sensory impressions made during her upbringing on Barbados along with her independent spirit and empathetic heart often bring Kit into conflict with the realities of everyday life. The first day anchored offshore, Kit dives into the water to rescue a doll accidentally dropped overboard by a waifish little girl named Prudence. Kit’s intervention is not appreciated by the crew or Prudence’s mother, Goodwife Cruff, who conceives a hatred and suspicion that will play out to affect Kit’s life dramatically. Kit’s fellow passenger and divinity student John Holbrook advises her that swimming skills, unexpected for a woman in the society of her day, carry a stigma associated with witchcraft.
An inauspicious beginning in Wethersfield sets the stage for Kit’s painful coming of age. After the shock of her unexpected arrival, Kit’s uncle Matthew reluctantly allows her to join his family out of duty as her last living kin. While Rachel and Mercy generously welcome Kit, Matthew and Judith, protective of the household’s meager resources, immediately make clear their expectation: Kit must make herself useful. Her seven trunks of elegant clothing and keepsakes have little utility in their frugal, demanding colonial lifestyle. Household tasks and fieldwork delegated to servants and slaves in Kit’s past experience of life now are her responsibility. Each month, the changing seasons and climate bring new family needs to meet, new skills to acquire, and new social norms to learn.
Spring in Wethersfield introduces Kit to her new social and political environment. The Sabbath Meeting and Thursday Lecture require her to develop a Puritan patience and endurance. The family circle includes Reverend Gershom Bulkeley and his protégé John Holbrook, and Judith envisions marriage possibilities in John. Kit’s appearance at the Sabbath Meeting dressed in an elegant silk dress and feathered hat captures the affection of wealthy young William Ashby, motivating him to decide that Kit would make a good wife. Matthew gives tacit approval of this plan by allowing William’s weekly courtship visits, which become a routine of long silences in the absence of shared interests. However, Kit views a possible marriage to William as the only alternative to a hard life for a young woman without means.
Evenings in the Woods’ home function also as a relief valve in the unstable political climate of the Puritan colonies under threat of takeover by King James of England. As a selectman in local government, Matthew nurtures commitment to their fragile freedoms. Kit watches and listens as Matthew passionately advocates for uncompromised self-government without royalist interference. Conflict with their friends ensues, as Reverend Bulkeley equivocates on the terms of the charter and William endorses a conciliatory approach.
The summer brings new opportunities for Kit to discover the personal resources she brings to the community. She becomes a teacher in Mercy’s summer school, where parents pay to have their children learn to read to prepare them to attend school. Resistant to her imaginative teaching methods, the headmaster Eleazar Kimberly dismisses Kit and threatens to disband Mercy’s school. In her distress, Kit runs to the Great Meadow, where she meets Hannah Tupper, the so-called witch, an ostracized Quaker living a meager, solitary life near Blackbird Pond. A warm friendship develops as Hannah encourages Kit to use her personal gifts to rectify the situation. Hannah’s home becomes the refuge where Kit teaches the neglected and overworked young Prudence Cruff to read and forges a friendship with the captain’s son, Nat.
Fall’s change of seasons brings the corn harvest and the annual husking bee, where the young adults gather to gauge the progress of developing romances. Judith presses her father Matthew to give John his blessing to marry her, and Matthew does, mistaking John’s intentions. While John did ask for permission to marry one of Matthew’s daughters, he meant Mercy, not Judith. At this time, only Kit knows that John and Mercy are in love. Political change nearly incites bloodshed when King James’s Governor Andros takes over the Connecticut Colony. William proves his loyalties to the Puritan cause when he takes the colony’s charter and hides it for safekeeping. John makes a break from his mentor Reverend Bulkeley’s support for the royalist regime by enlisting in the militia as a medic, and he is captured by Indians.
Winter comes, and illness sweeps through the town, including the Wood household. Judith has a lengthy recovery, and Mercy’s life hangs in the balance until Reverend Bulkeley, who is also a doctor, intervenes with a new remedy he learned from recent medical research. Other children in the town die. Distraught townspeople descend as a mob on Hannah, claiming the illness a result of her witchcraft. Kit and Nat rescue her from the mob, who ransack her home before burning it to the ground. When the mob finds evidence in Hannah’s home that Kit was teaching Prudence to read there, Kit is arrested on a charge of witchcraft. Later, however, Prudence’s testimony leads to the charges being dismissed. Three months later, John escapes captivity and makes his way home, where he throws himself into Mercy’s arms. During this time, Judith and William realize they were meant for each other. Spring finds Kit considering her future. Her longing to return to Barbados and her love for Nat are resolved when he returns from a voyage with a new boat of his own and intentions of marrying Kit.