Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Heretic's Daughter

Kent, Kathleen. The Heretic's Daughter. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

"You're in here because you're low and ugly. I'm here because I'm my mother's daughter."

Sarah Carrier was arrested for witchcraft, along with her mother and brothers and plenty of other people, during the Salem witch trials. She was arrested because her mother was thought to be the "head witch" in their town. Having a husband that everyone's afraid of, a mentally challenged son who managed to survive small pox, and a successful farm all being signs of serious dealings with the devil, of course.

On the one hand, this book has a lot going for it.
  • Kent does a wonderful job at drawing out the connection between the mass hysteria around these trials and other things going on at the time such as small pox, Indian raids, slim harvests, etc.
  • Kent is an actual descendent of Martha Carrier, Sarah's mother and one of the first women hanged during these trials. I don't know if this changed the way she wrote this book (how could it not), but it's pretty cool to think about while reading.
  • If you have a lot of background knowledge about the Salem witch trials, this presentation should hold something new for you. At the same time, prior knowledge is not a requirement for enjoyment.
On the other hand, there are also some issues.
  • The opening premise of the book is that Sarah Carrier Chapman, now an old lady, is writing her account of her mother's trial and the year leading up to it, for her granddaughter. The book opens with a letter explaining this. I kept waiting for this to be important or to meet the granddaughter (or even Sarah as an old lady), but it never happened. Just telling the story would have been a lot less complicated and the only change needed would be to leave that letter off in the beginning, that's how much disconnect there was between the letter and the story.
  • Throughout the book Sarah's father's past is shrouded in mystery, but it is extremely important. His past is what keeps him from being among the accused. Her mother has a book detailing his past that Sarah isn't allowed to read until she comes of age. When she's finally an adult, she reads her mother's book then puts it in a trunk. It would have been nice if she had let us in on a little bit of what was in that book, especially if this is supposed to be an account for Sarah's granddaughter so that she can know her family's history.
  • This is clearly a book about the Salem witch trials, but the whole first 100 pages or so are the build-up to the trials and a kind of explanation of Puritan life at that time. This build-up helped put the trials into historical context and definitely made it easier to see how things like small pox and fear of the locals left the Puritans desperate for someone to blame for their misfortunes, like witches, but I spent about half of the book feeling like I was waiting for the story to start.
Suffice it to say, I had mixed feelings on this one. It was a good read, but not a particularly satisfying one. The most interesting part, to me, was the changing relationship between Sarah and her mother. Unfortunately this is not the driving force of the novel, though it is an important part. I think if Kent had made this book either entirely about their relationship in the face of the trials or entirely about the circumstances that made the trials possible, The Heretic's Daughter would have been a great read. Trying to make it about both just didn't do it for me.

Book source: Philly Free Library

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I appreciate your thoughtful, balanced review. This sounds like an intriguing historical novel. The fact that the author has a familial connection makes it even more interesting.