The Heretic’s Daughter: A Novel by Kent. Kathleen Published by Back Bay Books (2009) Paperback is the story of the Carrier family of Massachusetts during the early 1690s when men as well as women were accused, tortured, imprisoned, and hanged for practicing witchcraft. It was religious persecution of the worst imaginable kind and a travesty of justice. Kent did exhaustive research but combined this with the oral stories handed down within her family, for she is a 10th generation descendent from that same Martha Carrier who was hanged on August 19th, 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. The story is told by her daughter, Sarah, in the form of a journal passed to her own granddaughter, Lydia Wakefield, in 1735. It is Sarah’s 71st birthday and, fearing her time is running out, she sends Lydia her personal recollections of her childhood — of the small pox epidemic, the family and neighbour entanglements and estrangements, Indian raids, kidnappings, and massacres, and the infamous witch trials of Salem — that Lydia may understand and forgive the part that she, Sarah, played in her own mother’s death.
The story begins with the Carriers, Thomas & Martha and their children Richard, Andrew, Tom, Sarah, and Hannah, traveling to Andover where Martha’s mother has a farm they will work. Their hopes of leaving smallpox behind them in Billerica are soon dashed when Tom becomes ill and their household is given a Bill of Isolation. Despite the quarantine, Sarah and her baby sister are bundled into the cart in the dead of night and delivered to their aunt and uncle in Billerica. During this brief period away from their family, Sarah becomes best friends with her cousin Margaret Toothaker and cannot help but compare her uncle’s gregarious, easy-going nature and her aunt’s shows of affection to her own parents who are taciturn and undemonstrative and Sarah and Hannah develop deeper ties to their relatives than to their own parents.
Sarah chronicles her own struggling relationship with her parents, the enemies they make in their uncompromising beliefs, and their suffering through the corrupt and inhumane prison conditions for months on end, awaiting release or execution. How her brother tries to follow his conscience but is tortured until he confesses and how she reluctantly adheres to the promise her mother has extracted from her and lives with the pain of that decision the rest of her life.
At first, I found the story a bit plodding and was anxious to get to the meat of the plot but before long I started to really enjoy the prose — the richly imaginative mind of the main character — and how Sarah’s relationships began to change slowly into a solidarity within her family and how she came to understand the devotion her parents had for each other and for each of their children. At the end, Kent provides a letter of her own to her readers and a brief history of the Salem Witch Trials, a list with dates of the 19 men and women who were hanged by the Court of Oyer and Terminer of 1962, and of the one man, Giles Corey, who was pressed to death with heavy stones placed on a plank across his chest because he refused to answer the questions of the court. Kent also provides a further reading list (fiction as well as non-fiction) and group discussion questions for book clubs. This is an excellent novel which will likely lead you to want to tackle some of the further reading books and the two subsequent books by Kent, The Traitor’s Wife (2010) and The Outcasts: A Novel (2013).