Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fiction review: Heretic’s Daughter

Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent is a powerful, haunting story that will stay with me forever. I recently read this novel, set during the Salem witch trials, for one of my book groups. Although some in the group found the book too depressing, most were moved and glad to have read the novel.

The author is descended from Martha Carrier, who was tried for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. She based the novel on the stories she’d heard growing up in her family, as well as plenty of research, and filled in the gaps with fiction. The result is a remarkable picture of daily life during that harsh time in our history, as well as the horrors of the witchcraft trials, imprisonments, and executions.

The novel opens with a letter from Sarah, Martha’s daughter, to her granddaughter, written in 1752:

…And now I have hit upon the heart of my letter. You cannot have grown to womanhood without hearing the embittered whispers of Salem Village, and of me and my parents. But in your love for me, you have never asked me to reveal the dread happenings of my youth. The name Salem even now causes grown men and women to blanch with fear. Do you know that a few months past, the councilmen of Essex County, Massachusetts, voted to change the name of the village to Danvers? It was a thing well done and done quietly, too, though I believe the memory of the Salem witch trials will last well beyond the few remaining living relics of that time.

As God in heaven knows, changing a name cannot change the history of a place. This history has for so long lived like a spider in my breast. The spider spins and spins, catching memories in its web, threatening to devour every final happiness. With this letter I hope to sweep away the terror and the sadness and to have my heart made pure again by God’s grace. That is truly the meaning of the word “Puritan.”

The rest of the novel is Sarah’s story, which begins when she is just nine years old, and her family moves to her grandmother’s house in Andover in an effort to escape a smallpox outbreak in their nearby town. They unwittingly bring smallpox with them, though, cementing their position in their new town as outsiders. Eventually, a group of young girls in nearby Salem (and in their own town) begin to accuse people of witchcraft, and Sarah’s family is swept up in the hysteria that results.

What happens next is as shocking as any other senseless massacre in world history, no less horrifying for its relatively small scope. My mother said that reading this book had, for her, a similar effect to visiting the Holocaust Museum. The morning after book group, just before Halloween, she and I saw a story on the Today show about Salem. The story was about all the fun things you could do if you visit Salem today, like going to a faux witchcraft trial and buying witch souvenirs. My mom has actually been to Salem and done these things, but she said that knowing the truth about what really happened there makes this celebratory atmosphere just appalling now.

Kent’s details of the imprisonment, punishment, and execution of innocent men, women, and children are haunting. As I read, I was astounded by the capacity of people to be so ignorant and cruel to their fellow human beings, but others in my book group immediately saw the parallels with plenty of more modern atrocities. Whatever your perspective, Kent’s writing paints a vivid picture and leaves a lasting effect. I highly recommend this compelling and important book.

368 pages, Back Bay Books


  1. I loved this book, so much, far more than The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which everybody is so wild for. Great review, as usual!

  2. Thanks for the heads-up, Connie! I just saw someone else's review of The Physick Book...last week and was wondering if I should read it also.


  3. excellent review; i loved this story.

  4. I've seen the book around and was curious about it. Glad to read your excellent review.

  5. I loved this book too. Thanks for the great review!

  6. This one is right on the top of the TBR list. I cant wait to read it!

  7. Wow. The quote you use grabbed me. I was intrigued by this book before but after reading your review I now know that I must give this book a read! Excellent review. You gave me wonderful insight.