July 10th, 2008

The Heretic's Daugher by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic's Daughter
by Kathleen Kent

            Once upon a time in the dreary town of Salem, hysteria struck the people and blighted their reputation forever.   Regardless of what they’d done before, and what they accomplished since, Salem will forever be known for the witch hunts of 1692. The trials have been a black mark upon the community for generations, but as the years went by descendents of the families involved have begun to speak of the past’s traumas.   Kathleen Kent, a direct descendent of Martha Carrier, tells the story of her ancestor in her first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter.
            The tale is told through the eyes of Sarah Carrier, Martha’s daughter. Their fellow villagers regard her parents with suspicion. Thomas, her father, had a mysterious past in England, and rumors of death and violence swirl around him. The violence of Martha’s clever wit and sharp tongue has made her many enemies, too. The unpopular family is forced to leave their home in Billerica to join Sarah’s grandmother in Andover, bringing with them the smallpox virus.   When Sarah’s brother Andrew becomes sick, Thomas hurries his daughters from the house, and deposits them at the doorstep of his wife’s sister, Mary Toothacker.   As Sarah is exposed to a home environment completely different from her own – where Martha was cool and stern, Mary is affectionate and warm – and for the first time has a close female companion, her cousin Margaret. When Thomas returns to take her home, Sarah bears the memories of her happy times and resents her mother for taking her away. 
            Through hard work the Carriers are soon prospering on Martha’s family farm, which breeds contempt in the small community. Sarah’s uncle had expected to inherit the land when his wife’s mother died, and is spreading rumors far and wide that he’s been cheated. When a string of bad luck strikes many of their neighbors, the rivalries grow worse. Many of the neighborhood children pick on Sarah as she goes to church, including a former servant of the Carriers’, and the stress further strains her relationship with her mother. Tension is mounting, just as a group of girls in nearby Salem Town begin making their accusations of attacks by witches sent by the Devil. Their net of accusations grows to encompass the surrounding villages, and soon Martha Carrier is accused of witchcraft.    She is taken away to prison, but her refusal to admit her guilt leads the magistrates to summon her family to join her. 
            This novel rips the idea of “noble Puritans” to shreds as Kent brings the repression of Puritan society to life. The Church and society shun those who don’t follow their exacting rules. Petty jealousies and greed flourish in the tiny hamlets, finding outlets in the circus of the witch trials. Kent never has to rely on stale caricatures to tell her tale. She does not say where she got her research, but her characters ring so true that one could believe she had family documents to draw from.   Overall The Heretic’s Daughter is very fast-paced, with lots of action, but at times the story dragged a bit. Since we know the inevitable outcome early on, there’s a bit of a waiting game for the witch-hunt to begin. The book is full of the little details that really flesh out life in the colonies, from spinning wool at the hearth to church services on the Sabbath. It would make an excellent addition to a high school student’s book shelf, as they’re sure to learn about the Salem trials in class, and this book helps shine light on one of the darkest periods of American history. Additionally, it’s enjoyable and entertaining (let’s face it, there are a lot of high school students bored stiff by The Scarlet Letter) and might encourage the reader to do a bit of digging into their own family tree, to see what kind of secrets are lurking in the past.
Buy the book on Amazon.com, or add it to your wishlist.