The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
This book was book of the month for my book group. It is not one that I would have chosen, but I think a large part of joining a book group is to read out of your comfort zone. Kathleen Kent is an American author who lives in Meadville, Pennsylvania, USA. She is a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier, one of the 19 men and women hanged in Salem as a witch in 1692. She is a masterful storyteller, and in this, her first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, she paints a haunting portrait, not just of Puritan New England but also of a family’s deep and abiding love in the face of fear and persecution. The Heretic’s Daughter was also the recipient of the 2008 David J. Langum, Sr. Award for American historical fiction. Kent spent five years researching and writing this novel and the result is exceptional. The prose is solid and smooth, and the portrayal of late-17th century New England is rich with fascinating details of life in that era.
The story is told through the eyes of Martha’s daughter Sarah Carrier, who is aged ten at the time of the events.
The beginning of the book builds a background showing the many factors leading to the fear and hysteria surrounding the accusations made against Martha. Life was hard and people were superstitious. They needed someone or something to blame for smallpox epidemics, fires, Indian raids, miscarriages, and crop failures.
Long-standing animosity between neighbors and relatives could easily flair up into vengeful naming of enemies as witches in order to save oneself from hanging. This is a tragic part of US history in which children as young as four years of age were manacled and imprisoned for witchcraft. At the same time, it is a tribute to the strength and character of Martha Carrier. She was the only woman in the colonies to face down and challenge her accusers and one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts.
Sarah Carrier, like her mother, is intelligent and willful. She openly challenges the world in which they live. Mother and daughter are often at odds with one another,but they stand together against the escalating hysteria of the trials and the superstitious tyranny that led to the torture and imprisonment of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft.
The story of Martha’s courageous defiance and ultimate death, as told by her daughter, who survived, is a very immediate and touching way of telling the story. I did not expect to enjoy this book: but I did. The Heretic’s Daughter is a fine first novel, by this writer. It is an excellent book and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.