Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Heretic's Daughter

The Heretic's Daughter
Author: Kathleen Kent
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
331 pages

The Heretic's Daughter is fiction, but first-time novelist Kent is an actual descendent of Martha Carrier, one of the many people accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Martha wasn't the first person accused, but she was the first person who stood up to her accusers. This is Martha's story told through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah.

I don't know about you, but I've always asked myself how people could have been so stupid to believe the antics of the girls who started the witch hunts. I've probably been swayed by watching too many bad dramatic versions of this story. But you know, there is always background information that we might not have that can help us understand why people behave the way they do. In this case, the people of Massachusetts (and the rest of New England) had just been through an outbreak of the plague that had killed hundreds of friends and relatives, and increasing violence between the settlers and Native Americans had people on edge. It was a bad time in general, and an especially bad time to be a woman who thought or behaved differently.

The story begins in the winter of 1690. The Carrier family has fled their home in another town for Andover to live with Martha's mother until the plague threat dissipates. Unknowingly and unintentionally, they bring the plague to Andover, and thirteen people (including Grandma) die. This begins a chain of events that will create great sorrow for the Carrier family.

Martha Carrier is at first portrayed as a cold sort of woman who has little interest in nurturing her children. She doesn't conform to the expectations of their "Puritan" society, which creates disorder in the family and community. Despite these shortcomings, Martha really is the backbone of the family and Sarah will eventually come to understand that perception is not always reality.

Sarah's father is also a nonconformist - and isolationist. A Welshman of large stature, he has a mysterious past and for the most part just wants to be left alone with his family. Sarah is perplexed that people in the community seem to fear him, yet from her perspective he avoids conflict and never stands up for his wife and children when they need it. The plot thickens as this subplot unravels.

Sarah - the heretic's daughter - experiences more pain and sorrow between the ages of 9 and 12 than most people experience in a lifetime. She blames herself for more than she should. And when her mother asks her to do something she's never asked her to do before - lie - she's not sure she can. Her journey will take her to prison - not a modern prison but a dark, danky, lice-filled cell where people are basically living on top of each other in human misery. Many of The Heretic's Daughter's characters are based on real people and situations, and Kent has translated her research well to fiction: At least one woman gave birth in prison, only to watch the baby die and then die herself. Children were accused and imprisoned, too. A four-year old girl was convicted of witchcraft and the judges actually struggled over whether to give her the death penalty.

There are many other interesting characters in the book, such as Sarah's favorite cousin, Margaret, who has visions; Margaret's likeable yet tragic father, the man whom Sarah simply calls "Uncle"; and Mercy Williams, the older teen just ransomed from Native Americans after a violent kidnapping years before.

The story is fascinating (it is historical fiction, after all!) The writing is tight, some of the best I've ever read from a first-time novelist. I read it in one sitting -- literally! -- on the plane from Chicago to Tokyo yesterday/today. Highly, highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 stars.