The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

hereticsdaughterTitle: The Heretic’s Daughter

Author: Kent, Kathleen (Author’s Website)

Genre: Historical fiction

Bibliographic: Back Bay Books, 332 pages, Paperback List Price $15.00, Audiobook List Price $27.93, ISBNs 9780316024488, 9780316024495, 9780316037532, 9781448732999, 9780230704435, 9780316144698, 9780330456302

Publication Date: September 3, 2008

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♥♥♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Leisurely paced, atmospheric, bleak, moving, compelling, lyrical

Why I picked it up: It was assigned reading for my readers’ advisory class.

S.I.A.S.: In the midst of the Salem Witch Trials, Sarah must decide wither to condemn her mother to save herself.

Summary: In 1752, Sarah Carrier Chapman sends a letter to her granddaughter explaining the darkest part of her life.  The rest of the novel is told in flashback.

The story opens with the Carrier family — Sarah, our narrator; Thomas and Martha, her parents; Thomas, Richard, and Andrew, her brothers; and Hannah, her sister — as they move from Billerica to Andover in an attempt to avoid a smallpox outbreak. Unfortunately, they left too late, and Andrew is stricken with the disease. Sarah and Hannah are snuck away from the rest of the family and sent to stay with Martha’s sister and her family (the Toothakers), where Sarah becomes best friends with her cousin Margaret. When the disease has run its course, Andrew is left permanently mentally disabled and Martha’s mother has died, leaving the Carriers her house. This causes bad blood between the two families, as the Toothakers felt that the land should have been left to them, and Sarah is prohibited from seeing her cousin.

The Carriers take in an indentured servant named Mercy Williams who tries to entrap Richard into marrying her, but Martha banishes her from the house. She begins a gossip campaign against the Carriers which combines with the ill-will that the townsfolk still hold for the family for bringing smallpox turns most of their neighbors against them. Meanwhile, a few girls in nearby Salem have started accusing their neighbors of tormenting them via witchcraft, and as the mania spreads the Carriers start to come under suspicion. When Martha is accused and taken to jail, she implores her children to testify against her to save themselves — and the children have to decide wether to comply.

Evaluation: This is yet another title that I really didn’t want to read that ended up totally sucking me in. It was very well-written, and while I hesitate to use clichés I really do think the best word for the prose is “lyrical.” The characters were well-developed, and the ones who are well-known historical figures all act in ways that seem to be historically accurate (although, to be fair, the Salem Witch Trials weren’t my concentration so I could be wrong about that). All of the characters were fairly well-fleshed out, and the level of detail is believable for an old woman remembering from a nine-year-old’s perspective.

I can’t say that the book was enjoyable to read, because the subject matter was a bit difficult, but I am glad I read it even so. Any time I had to put the book down I found myself wondering what was going to happen next, and when I finished I immediately put a library hold on The Witches because I want to learn more about the history of it, which I think is a hallmark of good historical fiction, at least for me. Fans of the genre will like it, and I think The Heretic’s Daughter could be a good book for people who are just starting to be interested in the Salem Witch Trials (maybe they’ve seen The Crucible and want more?). I really can’t think of any flaws in the book or reasons that I would hesitate to recommend it.

Significance: This is a popular book, which is especially poignant because the author is directly descended from Martha Carrier.

Readalikes: Lois the Witch, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell. The Wise Woman, by Philippa Gregory. The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the hysteria show about the place of women in Massachusetts society? Why do you think so many more women than men were imprisoned?
  2. One of the themes running through this novel is love and the various ways of expressing it. How do the characters express their love for each other?
  3. In jail, Sarah occasionally threatens to curse her fellow prisoners, telling one that she is her mother’s daughter. How is Sarah relying on her mother to protect her, even after Martha’s death? How does this show that Sarah’s personality has changed?
  4. Why does Sarah decide to testify as she does? Would you have done the same?
  5. Thomas Carrier has severe problems with the English justice system. Is he right? In what ways are the courts corrupt? Did Martha do the right thing, to maintain her innocence even in the face of death? Do you think Thomas would agree with you?

Lists and Awards: David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction. School Library Journal’s Adult Books for High School Students: 2008

Professional Reviews:  Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. New York Times. Guardian. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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