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The Heretic's Daughter

A debut novel about the Salem witch trials draws on the author's own ancestry.

By Yvonne Zipp / October 2, 2008



If you live in Salem, Mass., chances are good your ears are burning right now. Not since the heyday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (or possibly Stephen King) has the town attracted so much fictional attention.

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First up was this summer’s bestselling debut “The Lace Reader,” which set a witch hunt in modern Salem. This fall features two debut novels set during the hysteria of 1692, when men and women were hanged on the say-so of little girls.

One of these, The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, goes inside the home of one of the accused. Martha Carrier, if preacher Cotton Mather is to be believed, was the “Queen of Hell.” To her 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, she was a tough-minded farmer’s wife who didn’t suffer fools at all. And being an outspoken woman in 1690s Massachusetts could get you killed.

“Where there are women, there are witches,” her cousin Margaret tells Sarah. (A feminist slant is almost de rigueur for those wanting to write about the Salem witch trials.)

Kent, a descendant of Carrier, re-creates the day-to-day life of a harsh, closed society, where suspicion and jealousies festered for months before the witch hysteria erupted. The Carriers arrive in Andover, Mass., in the winter of 1690, bringing smallpox with them.

Breaking the order of quarantine, Sarah’s parents smuggle her and toddler Hannah to Billerica, where they live for months with Sarah’s aunt and uncle. With a cousin her own age as a companion and an uncle who tells stories by the firelight, Sarah wants to stay forever – ignoring warning signs such as her uncle’s tendency to disappear at night and come back smelling of drink.

(Kent does a good job of making Sarah both the sole eyewitness and an unreliable judge of character.)

Once she returns home, she discovers her grandmother has died and that her middle brother, Andrew, will never recover mentally from the ravages of the disease. Her grandmother willed her farm to Martha, instead of Sarah’s oldest male cousin, and jealousy and covetousness cause a complete break with that side of the family. (Both her uncle and her cousin would be among those to name Martha a witch.)

In 1691, the Carriers, who had been so poor that the boys pulled the rocks from the field rather than risk the health of their lone ox, manage to bring in a decent harvest, despite a fire that decimates neighboring farms. (The Carriers donated food to their less-fortunate neighbors. It didn’t help smooth things over.)

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