The Heretic’s Daughter

The Heretic’s Daughter
by Kathleen Kent
Hachette, 2008

Puritans believed they were a people convenanted with God. Charged by Him to secure a fortress in the wilderness….

There in those remote places [of Massachusetts Bay Colony] they were to bend the course of the world to God’s plan. I say now, What arrogance. The Town Fathers believed they were saints, predestined by the Almighty to ….

The holy purpose, like autumn brush fires, would swell and burn mightily through Salem Village and neighboring towns, committing scores of families … to dust. And beneath it all was greed and the smallpox and the constant raids of Indians, dismantling people’s reason, eating at the foundation of trust and goodwill … even our belief in God. It was a terrible time when charity and mercy and plain good sense were all thrown into the fire of zealotry… (p. xi).

We’re familiar with the Salem witch trials of 1692. Teenage girls with the mental stability of some of our 21st century teen idols got bored with being shut in the house by the winter snows and started a great mischief that led to persecution and death.

It was an age of religious hysteria. People were accused of deviltry and witchcraft. The Renaissance had come and gone in Europe, but Massachusetts Bay Colony never knew it.

It’s significant that there are no witches in this stunning novel. There are Puritans and hysterics, but no witches or pagans or heathens. And there are a few free-thinkers—the heretics—whose opinions run counter to the prevailing superstitions. The heretics are Thomas and Martha Carrier, a Welsh farmer and his wife who move to Andover to escape the smallpox in their home village. Even though they go to the meeting house every Sabbath, they arouse the suspicion and jealousy of their neighbor, partly because Martha is a no-nonsense woman who speaks her mind. After they take in an indentured servant named Mercy, who has escaped from captivity among the Indians, the girl, who is mean and vindictive, begins to harass Sarah, the Carriers’ ten-year-old daughter, who (as a 71-year-old grandmother) narrates the story. Sarah’s mother is accused of witchcraft, arrested, and sentenced to hang. Four of her five children are also arrested.

Kathleen Kent is the tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier. She’s done her homework well, for this novel is filled with authentic details that show what it was like to live in little colonies carved out of the wilderness of the New World. Life was hard. Indians and Puritans alike were ferocious. Food was often scarce. Disease was nearly always fatal. Superstition and accusation trumped reason and science. The colony was a theocracy where God’s elect preached fearsome sermons about the mighty and angry god who was eager to condemn his believers to hell for all eternity. The theocrats made a hard-enough life hell on earth. The long section of the novel set in the Salem jail may give you nightmares.

“Fanaticism,” the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” He also said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 to show the parallel between the witch trials and the McCarthy hearings. The Heretic’s Daughter is coming out at another time of parallels. Buy the book and read it. Support heresy.


RATING: 5 Broomsticks

This review first appeared in newWitch #18


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