It was a terrible time, when charity and mercy and plain good
sense were all thrown into the fire of zealotry, covering
everyone left living with the bitter ash of regret and blame.
The events of 1692 are well-trod ground even for those who slept through history class. Grisly, sensational, and safely far away in time, the Salem witch trials are easily one of the most popular topics for school reports. Like many events sketched repeatedly in thumbnail fashion, the witch trials have become a caricature, a short-hand reference for fanaticism and the darker passages of America's colonial history. So it speaks to the strength of Kathleen Kent's writing that each page of The Heretic's Daughter erased more and more of the schoolbook history I thought I knew. I could not put this book down, and finished it all in one long, nerve-wracking, soul-wrenching gulp even though I knew what would happen before I even cracked the cover.
The story is told through the voice of Martha Carrier's daughter, Sarah, as she sets down her family's history for her granddaughter sixty years later in 1752. At age 10 and at 71, Sarah is whip-smart, eloquent, fiery, and deeply perceptive, and it's her voice that makes this novel come alive. Kent shapes Sarah's adult narration with a vivid memory of her childhood observations and an ear for resonant metaphors, allowing the quiet beauty of her prose to slow down the impending fate of her characters. The dramatic events of Sarah's childhood usher her into young adulthood, and her innocence quickly sours as her family suffers from their neighbors' hypocrisy and capacity for cruelty.
Kent's rich portraits of smart, outspoken Martha Carrier and her equally headstrong daughter, both dangerously out of line in Puritanical New England, carry the history from textbook to living memory. She paints a complex picture of late 17th century colonial American towns ruled by their reverends and townspeople without the quintessential American rights of due process and equality before the law. Indian attacks, shifting alliances, and harsh conditions conjure a palpably tense atmosphere, brought to a fever pitch by xenophobia, mass-hysteria, abuse of power, and the appropriation and manipulation of religion. Through the narrative's startling and often disturbing realism, Kent gives the distant past an eerily contemporary feel. The Heretic's Daughter is a deeply moving book that speaks to our past, and our present, in unexpected and haunting ways.
The author's website, with a family genealogy and link to a video interview.
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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