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The Heretic’s Daughter: Religion, Fear, and the Salem Witch Trials

The Heretic’s Daughter is author Kathleen Kent’s debut novel, and it’s a surprising debut. It takes place in and around Salem, Massachusetts during the 1690s, before and during the infamous Salem witch trials. The narrator’s mother, Martha Carrier, is based on the real woman of the same name, who was one of the first women to be tried and hanged in trials. Mrs. Kent is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier.

Ms. Kent has done her research and does a beautiful job of depicting the harsh realities of life during this time. While the early Puritan settlers had come to this land to escape persecution and hoped to found a new religious community, they were beset by plagues, crop failures, and attacks by indigenous tribes. The infant mortality rate was so high, we are told in the opening pages, “that some families did not name their children until they were over twelve months old and more likely to live. And in many homes, if a baby died, that same baby the name would be passed on to the next born. And to the next if that baby also died.”

This is from the novel’s narrator, Sarah Carrier, Martha Carrier’s daughter. If Sarah sometimes seems distant and unfeeling when she describes horrific events, she’s no wonder, based on the climate in which she grew up. In fact, Sarah’s voice and attitude at first put me off, making it hard to relate to or feel her. But as the novel progresses, her voice becomes one of the book’s greatest strengths, because she provides such a contrast to our emotionally charged, Oprah-fueled times. Sarah helps us see what a harsh and difficult existence does to people, and as she matures, seeing her mother’s trial and surviving her own incarceration, her growth and new wisdom is much more obvious.

As the novel begins, Sarah and her family are on their way to live with her grandmother, and unbeknownst to them, they are bringing smallpox into their new community. This fact, coupled with Martha Carrier’s stubborn and outspoken nature, will ultimately lead to the family becoming a target when the terrible accusations begin. Those allegations, as presented in The heretic’s daughter, gains traction in the community due to the deadly combination of fear and doom-based religion. The community, facing so many challenges to its existence, cannot understand why God is attacking them with such anger. Surely there must be some offense, some sin, for which they are being punished. In their desperation, they seek out the ‘sinners’ in their midst, literally demonizing their own neighbors for the least offences. They seek to be scapegoated and purged, as so many have done in the name of religion throughout history.

From there, the paralysis of fear takes over, with each new charge silencing more people within the community, all seeking to protect their own lives and families. Children up to four years old are detained; since the ‘devil’ is behind everything and can take over anyone’s mind, no one is considered innocent. Quite the contrary, during trials defendants are definitely considered guilty until proven innocent. And her innocence is in the hands of none other than several hysterical teenage girls (I’ll let you read the book to learn more about this).

One of the most moving aspects of the book is how Martha gets Sarah to be saved, helping Sarah realize that behind her mother’s stern exterior lies the greatest of maternal loves. While Sarah initially despises her mother’s difficult personality, wanting to simply capitulate to others, she realizes that her mother’s apparent stubbornness is actually born of tremendous faith and wisdom. This is the exact opposite of what the elders of her community teach: that strict obedience is the foundation of faith. As Sarah observes, that obedience, coupled with fear, is what allows the madness to continue for so long.

And so The heretic’s daughter it works on at least three levels. First, as an exciting historical novel that masterfully describes a certain setting and period of time. Second, as a personal story of a mother and teenage daughter struggling to understand each other. And third, as a warning about how religion can go awry when a society is ruled by fear.

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