The Heretic's Daughter

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

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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.

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.

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“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.)

During that particularly frozen winter, as history buffs know, a slave named Tituba tries to amuse some bored girls, with horrific consequences. One-hundred-and-fifty people are imprisoned as witches, and 19 are hanged.

(Five other people died in the squalid conditions of the prison, and one man was tortured to death.) One of the first executed was Martha Carrier, and all but one of her children would be imprisoned with her. Her husband, Thomas, escapes, possibly because of the fear his sheer size inspires, possibly because of his past in England, which Martha has recorded in a book she buries under an elm before her arrest.

It wouldn’t take paranormal abilities to know that Martha, who was resented by her neighbors, was likely to be named as a witch. But she refuses to run.

“I will speak reason to them. They must listen,” she tells her husband. “They’ve had so many shambling, half-witted women in front of them that the magistrates are starting to harken to this nonsense. Well I am not confused and I am not afraid of them. They are lawyers and judges and must rule by law.... If I do not do this thing, it may go on and on.”

The novel’s history isn’t perfect (Kent gets two of the accused witches’ names wrong, for example).

But she successfully re-creates the smothering, suspicious atmosphere of Puritan life, where canonical word was law, and showcases the flagrant absurdity of the “trials.”

At Martha’s, her accuser actually pointed out the wrong woman, until, realizing her mistake, she “changed the direction of her pointing, like a weather vane in a shifting wind.” When another girl announced that Goody Carrier had been a witch for 40 years, Martha replies (as she’s being tied hand and foot and dragged away), “a neat trick, that, as I would have been only two years old upon becoming a witch. Do you suppose I rode then upon my rattle?”

Kent also excels at showing both the horrors and petty injustices the imprisoned endured.

To get a confession out of Martha’s oldest boy, for example, the judges have Andrew tortured. A 4-year-old girl is manacled hand and foot.

If a prisoner wanted to eat, his family would have to bring the food. (The Carriers lived 12 miles away from Salem jail; Thomas journeyed by foot.) And the manacles had to be paid for by the accused’s family.

“The Heretic’s Daughter” doesn’t rise to the literary heights of “The Crucible,” still the pinnacle of works about the witch trials. For one thing, there are too many dreams and omens. Foreshadowing is like potpourri – a little is fragrant; too much sends you out of the room sneezing. Here, the result can be like a Glade Plug-In dialed up to seven.

And the ending feels rushed and unsatisfying, as Kent devotes just one chapter to wrapping up the Carrier children’s lives post-Salem and to answering the question of just what was in the little book that Martha buried.

But it’s an eminently readable novel, and a tribute to a woman who held steadfastly to the courage of her convictions.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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