The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent has been sitting on my shelf since I won it in Tara's (Books & Cooks) contest a few months ago. I've been wanting to read it for awhile and finally carved out the time for it. It didn't take me long to read it. It's fascinating.
The Heretic's Daughter is actually a letter from Sarah Carrier Chapman to her granddaughter on her wedding day. In it she explains her part in the Salem Witch trials of 1692. Sarah was just 9 years old when the trials begin. Living in the nearby village of Andover, Sarah didn't believe the madness of the trials would touch her life, but like the smallpox the hysteria spreads.
The Puritans had a narrow view of the natural world. Any misfortune was either a punishment from God, or the mischief of the devil- depending on the person's standing in the community. Sarah's family has much going against them. When they arrive in Andover, they inadvertently bring the plague of smallpox with them. A dispute arises over the family's land between Sarah's family and her uncle. Then there is the family themselves. Martha, Sarah's mother, is a hard headed, outspoken woman, and Thomas, her father, is feared by the townspeople because of his dark past. It doesn't take long for rumour to turn nearly everyone against the Carrier's. Martha sees that no one will speak for them so she asks Sarah to tell a lie in order to save the family even if it means a death sentence for Martha.
This isn't just a retelling of the Salem Witch trials. It's a story about mother/daughter relationships and family. Sarah has plenty of pre-teen angst. Her mother is cold and bossy, her dad ignores her, her little sister is a pest, and her brothers are- well, just brothers. When she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, she thinks she's hit the jackpot. They laugh and tell stories. Margaret, her cousin, shares girlish secrets and the two become inseparable. All appears perfect, so when she must return to her family, she finds life unbearable. Mother and daughter butt heads even harder. Things come to a head and Martha warns her, "Loyalty to your family must come first. Loyalty always to your family." When Martha and the children are arrested, Sarah sees what her family is really made of. All they have is each other. Her parents sacrifice everything to save the children's lives.
Kathleen Kent breathes life into people who've been dead for centuries. Even though these are her ancestors, she resists making them into saints. She makes them real, ordinary people, warts and all. The atmosphere of the novel is understandably somber and is sometimes difficult to read. The conditions in the prison are horrendous and the reality is that innocent men, women and children- even pregnant women and babies- had to endure the cramped, filthy conditions because the townspeople believed the ravings of teenaged girls over their own common sense.
The Heretic's Daughter is a must for anyone interested in this time period and the Salem Witch trials.
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