Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Main Character: 9-year-old Sarah Carrier
Location: Andover, Massachusetts
Time period: Colonial period, the time of the Salem Witch trials
Genre: Historical fiction

Humans love to see patterns, even when there really isn't one. I'm seeing a pattern right now. This book, like Half Broke Horses, has a genealogy connection--the author is writing about her great-great-however many great-grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was convicted of witchcraft and hanged in 1692. Other than the fact that both of these historical novels are written by descendants of the main character, and are excellent reads, they have nothing in common, but I still find it a bit notable that I have wound up reading them back to back.

The Heretic's Daughter was the selection for our library's monthly book club, and so many staff members were reading it and enjoying it that I had to read it myself. The story is told in the form of a remembrance by Sarah Carrier Chapman, elderly and infirm, revealing her deepest secrets to a favored granddaughter. When Sarah was nine years old, her family moved from the community of Billerica to live with Sarah's grandmother in Andover. Unbeknownst to the family, they brought smallpox with them and soon illness had overtaken them and their new community. Sarah's father is a large man with his own secret past; he doesn't talk about it much, but then he doesn't talk much at all. Sarah's mother, Martha, is a forthright woman who does not endear herself to the neighbors. When the atmosphere of fear--fear of disease and fear of Indian raids--builds to the witch hunting hysteria, it is no surprise that old grudges lead to accusations of witchcraft against Martha. When Martha refuses to confess, her children are also arrested and imprisoned in barbaric conditions.

Using Sarah as the narrator is an interesting choice. Being in first person makes the narrative more immediate than the omniscient third person, but more than that, using the voice of an elderly woman looking back to a defining event from her childhood allows the author to leave gaps in the explanation of what happened in Salem and the surrounding areas. I was going to say "gloss over" but that's not really what I mean. Many books have searched for explanations and the psychological motivations--that's not the motivation of this book. This book seeks to bring to life one particular victim, whose strong beliefs would not allow her to lie even at the cost of her own life, and the effect that her life and death had on her family and the effect that all the deaths had on the community at large.

There are hints about Sarah's father's former life, and the author is reportedly working on a book about him. I look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Main character: Lily Casey Smith
Location: American Southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona)
Time period: 1st half of the 20th century
Genre: Fiction, Family story

When I recently changed jobs from Children's/YA librarian to cataloger, I did think that a potential danger was losing touch with all the great books that I was buying for the library. Little did I know that the greater danger was seeing all the books as they left the cataloging department to go out on the shelves. I now have a list of books I want to read, and it is growing daily.

One of the first books that a fellow cataloger recommended to me was Half Broke Horses. The author based this book on her grandmother's life and it was a doozy of a life. It starts with 10-year-old Lily checking on the cows with her little brother and sister when a flash flood comes barrelling toward them. They make it to a cottonwood tree just in time, and then spend the night in the tree, returning home in the morning when the waters recede.

Lily was born with the new century, in 1900, and spent her early life in west Texas. Her father trained carriage horses, and Lily became quite a good trainer herself. Her early education was at home, but eventually she was sent off to a boarding school which she loved--until her father spent her tuition money on a pair of purebred dogs that he planned to breed and sell. Bitterly disappointed, she left school but could not settle in back at home. By this time, World War I had taken most young men away from their factory jobs and women were moving into the manufacturing workforce. This left a shortage of teachers, especially in the small, remote areas. So Lily became a teacher--and a good one, despite being only 17 and with not even an 8th grade education.

As I read this book, I was reminded of my own grandmothers--women from the same generation as Lily, who lived through the Depression and two World Wars. Though they were from different parts of the country, they had a similar toughness and self-reliance. I am now going to have to seek out Jeanette Walls' first book, The Glass Castle, which tells the story of the author's mother, Lily's daughter.