Kathleen Kent

"The Heretic's Daughter"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 9, 2009)

“The Puritan faith turned every happening, a falling tree, a sickness, a wart, into a warning and a judgment from the Eternal Father. We were like children who quaked and shivered at the world we had been given. And it was through childlike distempers, selfishness, and slanderous voices that entire villages were brought low. I have seen firsthand, God help me, more than one child bring a parent to the scaffold.”

Sarah Carrier Chapman’s fictional recollections of her family’s involvement in the witchcraft trials of 1692 are so psychologically and emotionally vibrant that readers will mourn the plight of the innocents who were hanged and empathize with their bereft families. At the same time they will also get a sense of some of the pressures that led to the acceptance of the accusations of witchcraft and the trials that led to the executions of nineteen women and one man. Seven more women died in prison awaiting trial. Telling the story obliquely from her own perspective as a nine-year-old living in Andover, not Salem Village, Sarah Carrier reveals the strained and seemingly cold relationships within her immediate family and, by contrast, the warm and emotional relationships within the family of her aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Both families have secrets which are revealed in the course of the novel, but none of these secrets come close to explaining the madness which eventually spreads from Salem Village to the surrounding towns, such as Andover, and results in the arrests of Sarah’s mother for witchcraft (which we know from the outset of the novel). Their children, including Sarah and her three brothers are seized and imprisoned in an attempt to force her mother to confess to crimes she has not committed—an effective form of blackmail, since conditions in the prisons are so dangerous and unhealthy that only the hardiest survive.

As Sarah tells her story, the beliefs and behavior of the Puritan community, a true theocracy, become clear. Witchcraft—the belief that people within their community are in league with Satan and contending with God and church leaders for the souls of its residents—is the most serious sin possible, and as church leaders become more and more fearful that Satan is present and seeking new converts, the search for witches becomes more pressing. The very survival of the community depends on rooting out Satan in all his forms. When Sarah’s mother Martha is sentenced to be hanged, the horror of the events come home to Sarah and to the reader.

Author Kathleen Kent, who is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier, skillfully seduces the reader by creating in Sarah a character who seems to have much in common with present day nine-year-olds, despite the religious restrictions under which she lives. She sometimes feels like throwing her baby sister out the window. She argues, pushes her odious cousin, and even puts chicken droppings in his stew. But Sarah is also intelligent and obedient when she needs to be, and her agony when she is told to testify against her innocent mother in order to save the rest of the family is palpable. “Life is not what you have or what you can keep,” her mother tells her. “It is what you can bear to lose. You may have no choice…”

Smallpox epidemics, the killing and kidnapping of whites by Indians, the competition for scarce land as the population increases, inheritance laws, the unusually cold winter, and the scarcity of food are all described in their effects on the community. These physical difficulties combine with fatal jealousies and petty resentments to create a psychological climate which makes the trials and executions possible, if not necessary to the survival of the community. As the Carrier family’s secrets unravel and the traumatic days until Martha’s execution count down, Kent keeps the tension high. The sometimes gruesome details of everyday life provide a counterpoint to the overarching questions of justice and truth which are at the heart of the trials and the men and women who believe that they know what is “right”—and what God demands.

This debut novel, vividly imagined, carefully researched, and skillfully described, achieves some of the finest goals of fiction, allowing the reader to experience another time and place and to learn from them. The novel bogs down a bit in the details of Sarah’s imprisonment, and it fails to explain adequately the motivations of the accusers and why the judges were so willing to believe them, but it is a terrific novel, filled with unforgettable details about the harshness of life from three hundred years ago.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 187 reviews

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About the Author:

Kathleen KentKathleen Kent, a native Texan, is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.

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