Title: The Heretic’s Daughter
Author: Kathleen Kent
Length: 332 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The year is 1691. Ten-year-old Sarah Carrier lives with her three brothers and baby sister Hannah in Andover, Massachusetts, just a few miles away from Salem Village—a town that will soon become infamous for its witch trials. Sarah’s father Thomas is an almost preternaturally tall and grim Welshman with a shadowy past. Her mother Martha is a proud, stubborn woman and, like her husband, refuses to wholly comply with Puritan way of life. Sarah’s grandmother wills her farm to Thomas and Martha on her deathbed, inspiring the jealousy of their in-laws—but the Toothakers are not the only people who come to resent or fear the Carriers. Their unpopularity comes to a head in the spring of 1692, when witchcraft hysteria seeps out of Salem Village and into the surrounding communities.
There are many subjects near and dear to my heart which have been done to death and which, frankly, deserve a good long rest. The Salem Witch Trials are one of them. Fascinating though they are, how can this brief—the trials began in 1692 and ended in May the following year—and relatively isolated chapter of history have inspired so much fiction, particularly in YA?
That said, if you’re going to read just one novel about the Salem Witch Trials, you should read this one.
I’ve read a lot of novels that deal, at least in part, in part with witchcraft charges or scares, and this one takes the cake. It’s not only the best-written, it’s the most powerful—and the most frightening.
The Heretic’s Daughter is meticulously researched as well as beautifully written—it can be rather slow and dry in places, particularly in the first hundred pages, but it picks up rapidly after that. Kathleen Kent does a remarkable job at making her characters human while also respecting their memories. They are flawed, often deeply so, but they are also real. Martha Carrier—seen through her daughter’s eyes—may be hard, even cruel, but she dies everything in her power to protect her children. The figurative cherry on top is that Kent herself is a descendant of the Carriers. She grew up hearing many passed-down family stories, which (for me at least) leant a particular air of credibility to the whole novel.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts comes to life in Kent’s prose—and be assured, there’s a good deal of bad and ugly to be found. That Puritan farm and village life is not more thrilling is not the author’s fault, and there were enough of salacious little scenes interspersed in the first hundred-and-fifty pages or so to keep me interested. For instance the Carriers’ servant Mercy taking a literal roll in the hay with Sarah’s oldest brother, and later wrangling with Sarah in the mud and even biting her.
As I said before, Kent must have done extensive research (five years of it, according to the bio on the back flap) to create such a vivid world. Somehow, she even did a fair job with the language. No one sounds too modern, but they don’t sound stuffy and old-fashioned, either.
This is a coming-of-age novel in the purest sense; Sarah, grows and learns and endures any number of things by the time it ends. This transition is made explicit because Sarah-the-narrator is an old woman passing down the most eventful and traumatic years of her life to her granddaughter.
Kent, taking advantage of Sarah’s recollections, weaves hard historical facts about the trials into the narration as well. This is how you write historical fiction—Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick could learn a thing or two.
Heretic’s Daughter is also something of a psychological study. Because the narrator is in the midst of the witch scare, so is the reader. Looking back, we can shake our heads and wonder how an entire community was so in thrall by the attention-seeking play-acting (or possible chemical-induced psychosis) of a group of preteen girls. But thrust into that world, we see how any mundane thing can be seized upon as evidence of “witchcraft” by angry, greedy neighbors who see the trials as an opportunity for personal gain.
You know what else was great about this book? Something so refreshing after forcing myself through so much YA, masochist that I am?
This book has no romance. No romance, just familial love and friendship! (There is tender scene between Sarah’s parents two-thirds of the way through the book, but seriously—there’s no romance. Not even a love interest.)
The Carriers will sneak into your heart and grab hold of it without you even knowing it—I only fully realized it towards the end of the novel as, unexpectedly, my eyes filled with tears not once but several times.
Kent also builds a little suspense throughout the novel by keeping Mr. Carrier’s backstory vague and ominous. The “big reveal” at the end is not particularly astounding or earth-shattering to a modern reader. To a Puritan woman who lived through the Salem trials, though, I suppose it could have been.
Well-written and -researched, respectful and moving, The Heretic’s Daughter is an excellent example of what historical fiction should strive to be.
A few excerpts:
True autumn came at the end of October, and while the days were yet warm, the evenings grew cooler until the earth put forth an old moldering smell like a sodden blanket or the sharp tang of mint crushed in a glass. The sky in early morning and late afternoon would darken with the passing of carrier pigeons, too numerous to count, on their way southward. … The waxing and waning of dying embers in the hearth at eventide brought about wakeful visions of places dark and primitive. In my dreams I slipped my earthly bonds and flew to those same places, waking in the morning with a cramped and yearning pain in my chest.
She stepped and turned and stepped and turned so that every eye could see the iron links beginning and ending the same, one to the other in a closed circle, encompassing birth and life and death. Then she dropped her hands and fixed her great, liquid eyes on me. She drew in a ragged breath and said haltingly, as though in great pain, “I am my mother’s daughter, too.” She moved away into the deep silence her words had carved and returned to her place at the wall. Her name was Tituba, and upon her release she would be sold again to another owner and disappear from the written deeds of men like a stone into a well.