The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a painful work for all its bright moments and early innocence.
Sarah Carrier was the then ten-year old daughter of Martha Carrier, one of those condemned and hanged at the Salem witch trials. Told in the first person, this is her story of the period leading up to the madness, and then the madness itself.
Were it not for the intrusion of the trials into the work and into Sarah’s own life, this would have been a touching coming-of-age tale with Sarah, resentful of her own parents, finding pleasure during a sojourn – escaping the threat of smallpox – with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Margaret with whom she formed a close bond. Only later does she come to understand her parents, almost too late for her mother who, no sooner has her daughter discovered her strength and beauty, is arrested, imprisoned, and hanged for witchcraft at the urging of the hysterical acting of a group of teenage girls wishing ill upon the family. Sarah, herself arrested, recounts the events in the unbearably crowded and pestilent cell she was in across the corridor from her mother in the work’s most painful section which, for this reader at least who tends to have severe difficulty with anything to do with Man’s inhumanity to Man, made for unpleasant reading as Kent no doubt intended.
Kent has an eye for personality, for psychology, and certainly for the period of the 17th-century colonies… or so I would assume being no expert myself. If not, she writes with great conviction. Her portrait of the petty, sometimes violent hypocrisy of a society whose soul is overwhelmed with religiosity is particularly strong, and it is in this that she takes us inside the characters’ minds most particularly. That is not to say there are no kindnesses in the book, no decent people, but the feeling is that these have somehow sidestepped the religiosity rather than immersing themselves so totally within it.
There are lessons here, too, for the present as well, whether or not Kent intended there to be. Just as Arthur Miller drew intentional parallels between the Salem witch trials and those of the McCarthy era so too, perhaps because of the parallel Miller drew, I found it hard not to see parallels with the modern day and the scapegoating we see going on in the world as politicians point their fingers and denounce some group of victims so as to send other victims baying after their blood instead of acknowledging the failings of the politicians themselves. As a race, we seem prone to such things and, considered in that light, it is difficult to feel we live in a more sophisticated age of reason. There is the sense that a 21st-century Salem is far from impossible.
A difficult read in its being so painful, then, but one worth tackling if you have the stomach for it.