Thursday, October 9, 2008

REVIEW: The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent. Published 2008 by Little, Brown. Literary Fiction.

The Heretic's Daughter is the debut novel by Kathleen Kent, a Texas writer and descendant of Martha Carrier, one of 19 people hanged to death as a witch during the infamous Salem Witch Trials 0f 1692. The novel recounts Martha's story through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah, who was around 10 years old and imprisoned as a witch herself.

First of all, full disclosure. I was born in Salem, Mass., and grew up in the next town over; the stories of the Salem witch trials are stories I've heard many times, stories deeply embedded in the region and its history. I've been to the gallows area, heard the stories of the slave Tituba, the preacher Cotton Mather and the innocents who were tortured and died for nothing- Rebecca Nurse, Giles and Martha Corey, and the rest. Salem has made a name (and a lucrative tourist industry) for itself on the back of the witch trials, and is also home to rich scholarly resources for those with serious interest. As a casual student of local history, I've heard all kinds of speculation on the origins of the hysteria, on why it blossomed and consumed so many lives- some people blame a bacterial infection the accusers may have had that caused the tics and fits, others blame gender politics and an atmosphere of resentment against wealthy, outspoken women and a wish to put them in their place, among other theories.

The Heretic's Daughter takes the latter theory as its theme, and brings it to life in the story of tough, no-nonsense Martha Carrier who, while not wealthy, is an assertive woman embroiled in a bitter land dispute with her cousin Allen. Allen and a vengeful indentured servant named Mercy Lewis accuse the Carriers of witchcraft, and Kent implies clearly that the family's persecution is a direct consequence of the bad blood between Martha and these people.

It's young Sarah who tells the story, and I have mixed feelings about the way she tells it. The story starts off slow- I found the first two or three chapters tedious, and nearly stopped reading. Sarah is a precocious, if unreliable, narrator who engages in far too much clumsy, heavy-handed foreshadowing. I can't count the number of times she says something along the lines of "And that would be the last time we were happy for a long time." Yeah. The ending is abrupt and I wish Kent had spent a little more time on Sarah's life after the trials, as well as those tantalizing family secrets that never really amount to much.

I'm glad I didn't give up because once The Heretic's Daughter picks up steam it doesn't let go. Kent's depiction of the absurdity of the trials and the cruel, squalid and humiliating conditions of Salem prison were harrowing, gritty and detailed- I could almost smell the dank and darkness of the cells and see the women's desperation in Kent's vivid prose. What got to me the most was the inhumanity of it, and the callousness of a community that would destroy peoples' lives over that kind of irrational fearmongering.

(But then, it's not like things just like that haven't happened over and over throughout history. Who are the witches of today?)

Just as important to The Heretic's Daughter are the kindnesses people do- a little extra food when it counts, the women who care for Sarah as she lies dazed and feverish in the dirty prison, and the doctor whose attentions save her, body and soul. In the end I'm glad I read The Heretic's Daughter and I think it will stay with me for a long time. Reading it makes me want to take another drive up to Salem, maybe visit the Witch Museum and hear those stories all over again. It's Kent's story, and her family's story, and it's a story that belongs to all of us.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.