It doesn’t matter if you have little to no knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials or even read Arthur Miller’s classic novel The Crucible – you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Heretic’s Daughter. Kathleen Kent’s exceptional debut novel reworks the material through the life of one woman, Martha Carrier, from the neighbouring town of Andover. Accused and eventually sentenced to death, like Miller’s John Proctor, she would not save herself with a lie.
The novel is narrated by Martha’s daughter Sarah, who does this in the form of a letter to her own newly married granddaughter. You can’t help but feel that you’ve been transported back to that era with its minutely detailed build-up, illustrating every nuance and reaction that festers into nothing more than fear, accusations and violence. Kent’s story has an added kick by the fact that Martha Carrier is not only a real figure but Kent’s own direct ancestor. Much of the material has been passed down through 10 generations of family history.
Touted as “the Queen of Hell” by the Puritan minister and writer Cotton Mather, she’s a proud and feisty mother of 5 children and wife to the strong and silent Thomas Carrier, a Welshman who was rumoured to have been Charles I’s executioner.
Slowly unfolding, the pace of the book is a measured one and creates an intimate view to these early settlers who were plagued by disease and Indian attacks. Always living on the edge emotionally meant that when cow died or a wildfire takes a harvest, desperate families would cast around for someone to take the blame. Once the first cries of “witch” sprung from the citizens of Salem, it traveled through the neighbouring countryside causing long borne grudges to manifest into something more devious.
As the rumours and fear continue to spread, Martha is marked by the towns people of Andover. Sarah, young as she is when it happens, understands the virtues of her parents with their strength, faith and courage to stand up to those who point their fingers and unknowingly.
As the story trudges on, many of the names will seem familiar from The Crucible and like Miller, Kent examines the nature of family bonds and neighbourly compassion that is put to the test. She also described the terrible conditions of the Salem jail in excruciating details where almost the whole family was held as Martha told her children to plead guilty to witchcraft to save themselves.
Incredibly moving and beautifully written, The Heretic’s Daughter, whilst slow-moving in the beginning, evokes a story that is powerful and inspiring. Not hiding between sensationalist material or parallels about tolerance for our age, the story and Kathleen Kent speaks for itself.