Book Review: The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Accused witches at the Salem Witch Trials

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent is a novel about a young girl, her relationship with her mother and her part in the Salem Witch Trials. Unlike many other novels about the time, this one is an intimate look at a simple family and the ties that bind mothers and daughters. It must be assumed that much of the novel is guessing on the part of Kathleen Kent, given the scant records of anything beyond "She's a witch!" that were kept at the time. Even the best researchers are unlikely to find more than the accusations given in court, rumors and the birth/death/marriage records of the accused's family. Nonetheless, Kathleen Kent paints a believable picture of the Carrier family and the woman who Cotton Mather so disdainfully called a "rampant hag," only to be remembered in history as a superstitious fool who was partly responsible for the most infamous wrongful executions in United States history.

Martha Carrier was one of the women hanged after being found guilty by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. She, unlike so many others, declared her innocence to the very end. In fact, she is known for being outspoken and derisive of her judges and the girls responsible for the witch-hunt. She had five children, a simple farm and a life marked by the deaths of family members from small pox and the hardships that came with being a poor colonist in 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Heretic's Daughter is written from the point of view of her daughter Sarah Carrier, who was also accused during the Salem Witch Trials, though just a girl at the time.

The beginning of the novel is very much a look at Martha's character. Everything from the relationships Sarah forms with her cousin to the way she behaves at home shows Martha's personality. Sarah grows to dislike her mother, who is coarse, disciplinarian and seemingly simple. This is the picture of Martha that is also painted by history, but there is no way of knowing if the feelings of resentment felt by Sarah in the novel were actually present. It seems almost a modern view of mother/daughter relationships. There is simply no way of knowing if a simple farm girl like Sarah would have resented her mother. As the story develops Kathleen uses a bit of artistic license and begins to paint Martha as a literate and somewhat soulful woman whose callousness comes from necessity. This makes for a good story, but really we only know that she was outspoken. She was likely pleasant by today's standards, anyway.

The tragedy that befalls this family is inevitable to any reader who approaches the novel with knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials. Four of the children are taken to jail after their mother. The only family member left to fight for them is their father. Here is where the story really becomes something special. Kathleen Kent obviously took great pains to accurately describe the attitudes of the accused and their accusers. She did a magnificent job of painting Salem as in the grip of hysteria, which it was. She also did a great job of including individuals who were against the harsh conditions in which the witches were kept. In the end, the emotions she paints are believable and touching. In short, this is a great book for anyone who loves a historical fiction novel. It is as if Kent is reaching back through the centuries to point her finger at the real criminals of the Salem Witch Trials. Bravo to Kathleen Kent on creating such a moving freshman novel.

Shelly Barclay

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