A needle is such a small, brittle thing. It is easily broken. It can hold but one fragile thread. But if the needle is sharp, it can pierce the coarsest cloth. Ply the needle in and out of a canvas and with a great length of thread one can make a sail to move a ship across the ocean. In such a way can a sharp gossipy tongue, with the thinnest thread of rumor, stitch together a story to flap in the breeze. Hoist that story upon the pillar of superstitious belief and a whole town can be pulled along with the wind of fear. -From The Heretic’s Daughter, page 68-
The Salem witch trials of 1692, fueled by superstition and the inflammatory writings of Cotton Mather, ended with the deaths of 20 people and the imprisonment of dozens of others – mostly women and children. One of the hanged women was Martha Carrier, a distant relative of author Kathleen Kent. The Heretic’s Daughter is a novel based on this historical figure and the events surrounding the Salem witch trials. Narrated by Martha’s eldest daughter – 10 year old Sarah – the novel is a powerful and disturbing look at how fear and superstition devastated one family.
The novel begins in December 1690 with the Carrier family’s move from Billerica, Massachusetts to Andover. Unbeknownst to them, they bring with them a microscopic demon – smallpox. Later, when the family sickens, they will be blamed for the deaths of thirteen people in the Andover area – an accusation which later plays a role in the trial of Martha Carrier.
Sarah’s relationship with her mother is a centerpiece of the novel. Kent skillfully shows the tension between mother and daughter and the ambivalence which characterizes their relationship. As the story unfolds, and Martha is faced with the unthinkable, Sarah realizes she must do something no daughter should be asked to do: testify against her mother to save her own life and the lives of her brothers.
I started to shake my head no, but a terrible idea was forming in the back of my mind and my eyes must have widened, so that Mother nodded her head grimly and said, “When they cannot make me confess they will come to my family and it will not matter that you are a child. There are children in Salem Town jail even now.” She saw the look in my eyes and knelt in front of me, holding me tight in her arms.
“If they come for you, you must tell them anything they want to hear to save yourself. And you must tell Richard and Andrew and Tom to do the same.” -From The Heretic’s Daughter, page 177-
Kent does not spare her readers the horror which faced children as young as 4 years old during this terrible time in history. She weaves a tale of almost unimaginable terror. Richly atmospheric and narrated by the unforgettable voice of Sarah, this novel refuses to be laid aside. In Kent’s skilled hands, Martha is portrayed as a difficult yet courageous woman…a woman who refused to lie to save her own life, but instead stood before a merciless courtroom and scoffed at the fragile “evidence” which named her a witch.
Readers will be touched by Sarah who must grow up before her time and bear witness to the hysteria which costs her mother her life.
Highly recommended, especially for historical fiction lovers.