The Heretic’s Daughter
By Kathleen Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Historical Fiction
Martha Carrier was hanged on August 19th, 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, unyielding in her refusal to admit to being a witch, going to her death rather than joining the ranks of men and women who confessed and were thereby spared execution. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and wilful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. In this startling novel, she narrates the story of her early life in Andover, near Salem. Her father is a farmer, English in origin, quietly stoical but with a secret history. Her mother is a herbalist, tough but loving, and above all a good mother. Often at odds with each other, Sarah and her mother have a close but also cold relationship, yet it is clear that Martha understands her daughter like no other. When Martha is accused of witchcraft, and the whisperings in the community escalate, she makes her daughter promise not to stand up for her if the case is taken to court. As Sarah and her brothers are hauled into the prison themselves, the vicious cruelty of the trials is apparent, as the Carrier family, along with other innocents, are starved and deprived of any decency, battling their way through the hysteria with the sheer willpower their mother has taught them.
This was a buddy read with Kim @Traveling, Gladly Beyond. I really enjoyed this title as a shared experience. It offers a lot to discuss (as you will see below), and I would definitely recommend it for book groups. Staying true to the normal approach, we have exchanged 5 questions regarding our time with the book and then I am sharing my final thoughts. You can read Kim’s review here.
Since this is a bit of a discussion, there is always a small potential for spoilers, but I feel this is rather safe.
My Questions for Kim:
1. Did you feel that The Heretic’s Daughter read as historically accurate or detailed? Would it be safe to say that someone who is less familiar with the witch trials could pick this title up and obtain a fair depiction of what history tells us took place?
I keep going back and forth on this one. On one hand, the narrative provides a lot of detail about Martha Carrier’s story and shows how it must have felt while this pivotal historical event was unfolding around the family. On the other hand, it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of what happened in and around Salem in 1692. When it comes down it to, I think that someone unfamiliar with the historical events would find The Heretic’s Daughter to be an intriguing story about an individual family, while someone with more knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials would be able to place the Carriers’ story in the context of history and better understand what they were up against.
2. Often in stories such as this, I find that I need a character who challenges the dated beliefs and concepts. I know that you and I both discussed this desire. Did you find that Martha or her daughter lived up to those expectations?
Martha did that to a degree, though it wasn’t due to the author making a specific effort to make her more modern. Martha Carrier was an outspoken woman in reality. Certain documents from the trial are presented between sections of the story, so readers can see for themselves that she was willing to stand up for what she believed in. I wish there had been more from Martha in the whole narrative, as her willingness to stand up to the church leaders and condemn the lies being told about her was a refreshing change from the other characters, who tended to roll over under the gaze of the church elders, or who were willfully spiteful. I had to admire her willingness to do what she had to in order to save her family, regardless of the cost to herself.
I can’t decide if Sarah’s willfulness was due to her challenging the beliefs of her time, or if it was due to her being a child. She was very much her mother’s daughter in most respects, but lacked some Martha’s fearlessness. Much of that was, I think, due to her age. She was only about ten years old through most of the book, and I don’t expect a girl of her age to have the necessary experience to be able to stand up and defy her elders the way Martha did.
3.How did you feel about the slower narration on a personal level? Did it contribute to the setting or did the slower pace hinder your experience?
I go back and forth on this one, too. There were times where the slower pace helped me get a better understanding of characters like Martha and Sarah, and I enjoyed the relationship between Sarah and her cousin. But when it came to some long passages about Thomas Carrier (Sarah’s father), I started to get bored. I wasn’t as interested in him, and I wondered why there was so much said about him when the point of the book was intended to be about Martha and Sarah.
At other times, though, like in the prison scenes, the slowness of the narrative helped me to get a sense of how dull and miserable the days were for the prisoners who were locked up in the cellar with little to no hope of a reprieve.
4. Martha and Sarah seemed to have a strained relationship at the best of times. How do you feel that their relationship evolved as a result of Martha’s decisions to maintain her innocence?
I think Martha’s decision inspired Sarah to be more courageous in the ways that a girl or woman of her time and place could be. The version of Sarah who emerged from the end of the book would have the strength to look any accuser in the eye and not blink, and would speak truth to power when that power was trying to tell lies about her.
Martha also taught Sarah about a mother’s love. Children don’t always appreciate when a mother has to be hard on them or discipline them. They just see a grown-up who doesn’t understand their situation. As the story progressed, though, Sarah gained insight about Martha and began to realize why she kept her secrets or refused to confess to the crimes she was accused of, so Sarah could step into her mother’s shoes. In the moment when Sarah held her head up and declared, “I am my mother’s daughter”, it felt like everything Martha had done paid off. Perhaps Martha wouldn’t be there to watch her daughter grow to be a woman, but she gave Sarah the tools she would need to stand tall in every circumstance.
5. Did you walk away from anything of significance during your time with the book that you feel might still be relevant in today’s world?
Absolutely. The Salem Witch Trials were a dark spot in the history of early America when people allowed fear and superstition to overcome their reason and sent so many innocent people to their deaths. The same thing happens over and over. Whenever something bad happens people search for a culprit, and casting blame on someone who is different– whether they’re innocent or guilty– is easy for a mob to do. It’s hard to step back, take a breath, and think about the situation and find the right answer in the heat of the moment. It’s even harder to be like Martha Carrier and openly point out the lies that authority figures might promote in order to save their own skin or provide an answer that will satisfy a senseless mob. We don’t have to look very hard at our own history to find examples of this– McCarthyism of the 1950s, the Japanese internment camps of WWII, or people blaming refugees for anything that might be going wrong.
If The Heretic’s Daughter has any sort of lesson to impart, it’s that we should try to be like Martha Carrier and promote truth, no matter the cost.
Kim’s Questions for Me:
1. Given that, in many cases, the property of people accused of or executed for witchcraft was confiscated, do you think the judges truly believed the witnesses’ accusations, or were they motivated by greed?
There definitely seemed to be several underlying motivational factors for the accusations occurring within The Heretic’s Daughter. I felt greed was among them for sure and struggled with the idea of confiscating family property. It was unjust on multiple levels. I do admit however, that the majority of the motivation reeked of a form of twisted revenge and hatred towards those the accusers felt had wronged or slighted them in some manner. The entire process was transparent and angering.
2. The author, Kathleen Kent, spent quite a lot of time on the story of Sarah’s father, Thomas Carrier. In the afterword, she mentions that she was planning to write a book about Thomas’s early life (it has since been published, and is titled ‘The Wolves of Andover’). Did you find that all this talk about Thomas was necessary to the story, or did it feel like a setup for Kent’s next book?
I have to say that I felt Thomas contributed very little to the story as a whole. In fact, his character and his complacency angered me. I am leaning towards his emphasis as more of a segue to the next book. He didn’t work well for me. Honestly, I would not be inclined to read his story.
3. Given that the synopsis of The Heretic’s Daughter placed a heavy emphasis on Martha and Sarah’s relationship, do you feel that their relationship was fully developed, or did other relationships rival it in importance?
This is a tough question for myself. In the first half of the book I felt there was a lack of relationship between mother and daughter that felt almost disconnected. Martha was presented as a hardened woman with little interest in building a significant connection with Sarah and her children. But as the story progressed and she began to confide in Sarah, there was a growth in their bond that I found to be of great importance. Sadly, it almost came to late for me. I am still on the fence about this, but feel the synopsis implies much more than was actually delivered in terms of their relationship.
4. How did you react to the racist descriptions of Native Americans that pop up throughout the story?
I struggled in a great way with the amount of racial slurs and depictions occurring, particularly in the first half of the story. But after reminding myself of the time and how dated the story was, I came to terms with the authenticity the author was establishing. So I was eventually able to respect her decision to remain true to the era and story. I think that it is important to keep in mind why author’s must implement harsher elements such as this if the wish to produce historical fiction that feels accurate.
5. Were you intrigued enough by The Heretic’s Daughter to read the follow-up book about Thomas and Martha’s early lives, The Wolves of Andover?
I really enjoyed The Heretic’s Daughter but will not be making the decision to continue at this time. I think the witch trials fascinate me enough to have captured my attention, but I do not believe Martha and Thomas’ story would.
My Final Thoughts..
While The Heretic’s Daughter is a worthwhile read that I recommend to anyone who finds an interest in historical fiction or the witch trials, it is not without its own struggles. The bleakness and slow pacing, while contributing effectively to the setting, create an uphill read at times. This is a book that is best to pick up when you feel like committing to something heavier. The elements of injustice and outdated beliefs will challenge most readers. You must keep the time period and events firmly in grasp and be able to admire the author’s ability to provide something authentic and genuine even when it is unpleasant, difficult or even tedious. You will find no fluff or sugar-coating between the pages, nor will you find something thrilling. The real horror lies within the truth of the events that unfolded surrounding the trials.
I would highly recommend reading this in a group or as a buddy read. I feel that an ongoing discussion adds very beneficial insight. Sharing thoughts with Kim and creating and answering the above questions greatly enhanced my experience with The Heretic’s Daughter.
Enjoyed with an herbal blend consisting of lavender, apricots, and apple pieces.