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.

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