The Heretic’s Daughter – Religion, Fear and the Salem Witch Trials
September 23, 2022
The Heretic’s Daughter is author Kathleen Kent’s first novel, and it is a stunning debut. It takes place in and around Salem, Massachusetts during the 1690’s, 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 woman to be tried and hung in the trials. Ms. Kent is herself a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier.
Ms. Kent has done her research, and she does a beautiful job of depicting the harsh realities of life during this time. While the initial Puritan settlers had come to this land to escape persecution, and hoped to found a new religious community, they were besieged by plagues, crop failures, and attacks by indigenous tribes. The child mortality rate was so high, we are told in the first pages, “that some families did not name their child until the child was past twelve months and more likely to live. And in many households if a baby died, that same baby’s name would be passed on to the next born. And to the very next if that babe died as well.”
This is from the novel’s narrator, Sarah Carrier, Martha Carrier’s daughter. If Sarah sometimes seems distant and unfeeling as she describes horrific events, it is no wonder, based on the climate in which she was raised. In fact, Sarah’s voice and attitude was at first a put-off to me, making her difficult to relate to or feel for. But as the novel progresses, her voice becomes one of the book’s greatest strengths, because it provides such a vast contrast to our emotion-laden, Oprah-fueled times. Sarah helps us to see what a stark and difficult existence does to people, and as she does mature – through watching her mother’s trial and surviving her own incarceration – her growth and new-found wisdom is that much more evident.
As the novel begins, Sarah and her family are on their way to live with her grandmother, and, unbeknown to them, are bringing smallpox with them to their new community. This fact, along with Martha Carrier’s headstrong and outspoken nature, will ultimately lead to the family becoming a target when the terrible accusations begin. Those accusations, as presented in The Heretic’s Daughter, gain traction in the community because of the lethal combination of fear and damnation-based religion. The community, facing so many challenges to its existence, cannot fathom why they are being targeted by God for such wrath. Surely there must be some offense, some sin, that they are being punished for? In their desperation, they seek out the ‘sinners’ amongst them, literally demonizing their own neighbors for the smallest of offenses. They seek to scapegoat and purge – 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 as young as four are taken into custody – since the ‘devil’ is behind it all, and can take over anyone’s mind, no one is considered innocent. Quite the contrary, during the trials the defendants are most definitely considered guilty until proven innocent. And their innocence is in the hands of several hysterical, adolescent girls no less (I’ll let you read the book to learn more about this.)
One of the most touching aspects of the book is how Martha gets Sarah to save herself, helping Sarah to realize that behind her mother’s stern exterior lies the greatest of maternal loves. While Sarah at first despises her mother’s difficult personality, wishing she would just capitulate to others, she comes to realize her mother’s seeming obstinance is actually born of tremendous faith and wisdom. This is exactly the opposite of what her community elders teach – that strict obedience is the foundation for faith. As Sarah observes, that obedience, along with fear, is what allows the madness to continue for so long.
And so The Heretic’s Daughter works on at least three levels. First, as a gripping historical novel that masterfully depicts a certain setting and time period. Second, as a personal story of a mother and adolescent daughter struggling to understand each other. And third, as a cautionary tale about how religion can be twisted when a society is ruled by fear.