Author: Kathleen Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company (Sept. 3. 2008)
In her debut novel, Kathleen Kent offers a unique perspective of the Salem Witch Trials: the story is told through the eyes of a child, ten-year-old Sarah Carrier, daughter of one of the accused.
The Heretic’s Daughter begins months before the Salem Witch Trials. The Carrier family has just moved to Andover, Massachusetts from Billerica, hoping to escape the outbreak of smallpox there. Unbeknownst to them, one of Sarah’s older brothers, Andrew, is already infected. When Andrew becomes ill, Sarah and her younger sister Hannah are sent to live with their aunt and uncle, in the hopes that this will spare them from the disease.
On her own for the first time in her life, Sarah quickly bonds with her cousin Margaret. The two girls become inseparable. Sarah also notices a stark contrast between her family life and that of her cousin. Compared to Margaret’s family, Sarah’s parents – especially her mother, Martha Carrier – seem cold and distant.
When Sarah and Hannah finally return to their family, much has changed. Andrew has been ravaged by the disease, another family member has died from it, and many in the community are suspicious of the Carrier family. Sarah and her mother clash with each other frequently. Rumors begin to circulate about Martha Carrier, slowly at first but gaining strength as events in nearby Salem begin to incite mass hysteria.
At first, Sarah resents her mother and feels that Martha's willfulness and pride are what have damaged their family’s reputation in the community. But as the story progresses, and Martha Carrier is arrested for witchcraft, Sarah’s attitude towards her mother softens. She begins to admire and love the qualities in her mother that she previously resented. Sarah’s anguish over the fate she knows awaits her mother is palpable and heartbreaking.
Kathleen Kent’s prose is beautiful, frequently verging on poetic. One of my favorite passages is this description of Martha Carrier:
“It was not defiance only that made me study her so, although our cat-and-mouse-games did become a kind of battle. It was also because she, with a deliberation bordering on the unseemly, set herself apart from what a woman should be and was as surprising as a flood or a brush fire. … But Martha Carrier was like a deep pond, the surface of which was placid enough but deeply cold to the touch and which was filled beneath the surface with sharp rocks and treacherous choke roots.”While Sarah’s relationship with her mother is the driving force for the novel, I found the relationship between Sarah and her siblings to be very touching as well. When Sarah is about to leave to live with her aunt and uncle, she’s given a handmade doll. Her departure came about so suddenly that the doll could not be finished before she left – it was missing buttons for eyes. One of Sarah’s brothers rips the buttons from his shirt cuffs and runs after her so that Sarah will have eyes for her doll.
The Heretic’s Daughter is one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve read this year. Kent’s narrative style is so refined that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel. If you enjoy excellent, well-researched and compelling historical fiction, this is a must-read.
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