Posted by: Jeanie F | February 27, 2010

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I was predisposed to like this book before I read the first word. The Salem Witchcraft Trials have interested me ever since, as a high school junior, I selected it as a topic for a term paper. The insight into life in Colonial America was a different view than had been presented in my history classes. Here was a “historical event” that went beyond the well-known names, dates, and events taught in school, and seemed to resonate with the “real life” of real people. In fact, Betty Paris and her cousin, Abigail Williams, along with their nasty clique of other accusors, seemed to me like the original Early American Mean Girls. I went to school with girls like them every day!

Over the years I took my stack of notecards and turned that original term paper into a whole variety of “witchcraft trial-themed” assignments: McCarthyism as Witch Hunting, the accuracy of Henry Miller’s “The Crucible,” even a persuasive essay titled “Could It Happen to You?”

Now that you have my personal history with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, you’ll understand why I ordered The Heretic’s Daughter on my Kindle the minute I heard about it. And I have to say, it did not disappoint. The topic is as fascinating to me as it was all those years ago in high school, but author Kathleen Kent has given us a fully developed story of a single family’s experience of being accused, imprisoned, found guilty and, for those who survived, trying to put their lives back together in the aftermath.

The story is told in first person by Sarah Carrier, the young daughter of Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be hanged as a witch. The choice of this narrator gives us a somewhat limited understanding of the events as they unfold, which serves to keep the reader slightly off balance. In the opening chapters of the book, we learn a lot about the hardships of life at that time – Indian raids, inclement weather, disease – and enter into the advent of the witchcraft accusations with a strong sense of the vulnerability and fragility of life in that hard time and place.

None of this was exactly new to me, but Kent’s strong writing set a very realistic stage. What was new, and most shocking, to me, was the condition under which the accused were housed and treated once jailed. In none of the research I had done had I ever come across such vivid descriptions of the pure misery and futility to  which the accused were subjected while awaiting trial. Kent has done her homework and small indiginities, such as requiring families to pay for manacles that chained their loved ones, create a very strong sense of foreboding for what these unfortunates faced. Whether or not one was ultimately found guilty became almost (but, of course, not quite) a moot point. All accused suffered mightily.

Kathleen Kent is a tenth generation descendent of Martha Carrier as well as one hell of a storyteller. I hope that her close association to this story, which is her first novel, doesn’t limit her ability bring us more of her outstanding writing.

Grade: A


Responses

  1. Great review – you’ve got me wanting to read this one for sure. Thanks!

  2. I hope you like it as much as I did!

  3. I also loved the book and the subject matter. Kent painted such a vivid and disturbing picture of this time period. I wish I was going to be at bookclub to discuss but it is my Dad’s 90th birthday.


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