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The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

By Intern Rusty | Books | January 8, 2010 |

By Intern Rusty | Books | January 8, 2010 |

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent is a loosely fictionalized account of the trial of Martha Carrier during the Salem witch trials in 1630. The story is told from the perspective of Martha’s young daughter, Sarah, who is only 11 when her mother was arrested. The story begins long before that, though, chronicling the events that will lead up to Martha being accused of witchcraft.

In fact, I’d say the story overall has more to do with the relationship between Sarah and her mother than the actual witch trials. The trials aren’t introduced until midway through the book, with Martha, Sarah and the arrest of all three of Sarah’s brothers coming after that point. Martha Carrier is portrayed as a strong, stubborn, and not particularly emotionally available woman. The last part is what stings Sarah the most, and causes the daughter to resent her mother openly on several occasions. Martha proves her concern for her children, though, when she takes Sarah aside the night before she’s arrested and warns her that if Sarah and her brothers are arrested as witches they must confess to whatever the court wants to hear to avoid being hung. Martha intends to proclaim her innocence until death, with the clear knowledge that to do so will be to practically sign her own death warrant.

The Heretic’s Daughter is an interesting look at home life in New England in the seventeenth century and particularly an interesting look at a side of the Salem witch trials that’s not often represented. Sarah not only watches the arrest and imprisonment of her mother, but she herself is arrested and tried along with her three brothers. Only her baby sister and her father escape accusations, and it’s hinted that her father might do so more out of the townspeople’s fear of him than anything else*. The court room scenes are terrifying and the descriptions of the jail are horrific, never mind the discussions of what people were put through to coerce confessions out of them. One of Sarah’s brothers nearly dies in prison, and when Sarah’s mother is taken away to be hung, her children only have a few minutes to say goodbye to her. It’s an extremely unflinching look at a very dark and disturbing chapter of American history, when the hysteria of young girls was taken as unarguable testimony to the presence of evil.

Having some foreknowledge about the Salem witch trials is helpful in reading The Heretic’s Daughter, but it’s far from necessary. The book is a fairly easy read, the language would probably be understandable to a bright middle schooler although the parts about the trials and executions may be upsetting. Overall though, Kent has written an interesting book that’s a good choice for anyone interested in life in Puritan America or the Salem witch trials.

*Sarah’s father, Thomas Carrier, was well clear over 7 feet tall (some sources say 7’4”) and served under Cromwell before coming to America. He also lived to at least 109, his family claimed 113, and was active and lucid until the day he died. Oh, and some say he’s the man who executed Charles I. Fun tidbits for you history dorks.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read review. For more of Rusty’s reviews, check out her blog, Rusty’s Ventures.

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