- The Heretic’s Daughter/Kathleen Kent
- Kent, Kathleen
- New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008
- ISBN-10: 9780316024495; $15.00
- 332 p.
- Large print
- Pre-loaded audio player
Based on the true events of the Salem Witch Trials and the conviction and execution of Martha Carrier, this is a story of love, courage, and sacrifice in the face of hysteria and tyranny.
Martha Carrier was one of 200 people imprisoned and tortured in New England on accusations of being a witch. She was tried and hung in Salem, Massachusetts in spite of, or perhaps because of, her steadfast refusal to confess to the crime. The story is told from the perspective of her young daughter Sarah, who also came under suspicion, along with her brothers. Sarah and her three brothers spent months in a foul prison with the other accused. Sarah was the youngest prisoner. They suffered hunger, mistreatment, and illness. The children escaped execution, but the viciousness of the accusers, judges, and neighbors marked them forever. This is a haunting look at the hysteria of the community and the harsh Puritan tyranny of the leaders. It is also a tale of love, sacrifice, and courage.
The author is a descendant of Thomas and Martha Carrier. She grew up hearing stories of Martha’s strength and courage and of the Salem witch trials. She also did meticulous research, including reading the transcripts of the trials. Her account radiates authenticity. The book is beautifully written, and Kent’s descriptions set the mood of a beautiful but harsh colonial New England, where life often hung by a thread because of illness, hunger, and raids by the native tribes.
The family relationships are portrayed with unflinching realism, with love, misunderstanding, and sometimes estrangement. The author lays bare human nature and the base motivations for turning on neighbors and sometimes even family. From a 21st Century perspective, it is hard to believe the trials happened, but the author carefully builds for us an understanding of time and place, of fear, suspicion, and hardships that led to these events.
The Heretic’s Daughter is a terrific read. It will leave an indelible impression on the reader.
There is some terrific stuff on the author’s website.
Here is a good interview with the Mother Daughter Book Club site.
This book will appeal to historical fiction fans who enjoy a well-researched historical story based in fact with lots of period detail to set the mood. It will also appeal to fans of strong female characters or complex family relationships.
The Wolves of Andover, by Kathleen Kent. This is a later novel by the same author. It shares the setting of The Heretic’s Daughter and also has characters in common.
Beyond the Burning Time, by Kathryn Lasky. These books share the theme of the Salem witch trials, and both feature a mother/daughter relationship.
The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant. Both books are set in New England and share a feeling of bleakness, but the topics are different.
The David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction
A booktalk could set the scene of the Salem witch trials–the hysteria of the girl witnesses, the accusations of angry or jealous neighbors and family members, the puritanical harshness of the leaders–then talk about how Martha Carrier came to be one of the accused.
Alternatively, a talk could focus on describing Sarah’s time in prison in order to get the perspective of a child. It would be a very sensory description.
The prologue is a letter from the protagonist to her granddaughter many years after the story takes place. Was this an effective introduction? What feelings did she express about the past?
Sarah records that her mother “set herself apart from what a woman should be” (p. 7) and that she herself “was not pretty or pliable” and therefore “was not doted upon” (p. 6). What was expected of women and girls in that society? Did this play a role in the accusations against Martha and Sarah? How have expectations changed since this time, or have they?
Despite their Christian background, these communities were full of superstitions not actually based on the Bible. What role did superstition play in the witch trials? What superstitions still exist in modern culture?
How can we reconcile Martha’s strong conviction that she had to tell the truth about her innocence with her urging the children to lie? Did she consider the guilt they might feel and the power it would have over them?
Why are forced confessions not trustworthy? Do you think the judges at these trials had any understanding of this principle?
Why I chose this book
This was a fascinating and difficult-to-understand period of history. This book’s perspective on the events is a fresh take. I also found it interesting that the author is a descendant of Martha Carrier.
Salem witch trials, Martha Carrier, Puritans