The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent has been on my shelf for a long time. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Kent at a publisher dinner during NEIBA in 2008 and had been meaning to read her book ever since. I finally realized that by listening to some of the books I already own, I’ll get through them more quickly. So, I got a copy of The Heretic’s Daughter on audio from my library.
About the Book:
The Heretic’s Daughter is a novel about the Salem witch trials. Sarah Carrier, daughter of Thomas and Martha Carrier, reflects on and narrates the story of her childhood, beginning with her family’s move to Andover, Massachusetts, during the late 1600s. As smallpox epidemics, Indian raids, and bad luck abound, the town’s residents become suspicious and afraid, convinced that heretics have brought down misfortune on them. Superstition and hysteria curl outward from Salem and its band of witch-finding girls like a poisonous fog, catching up the whole area in its madness. From Sarah’s perspective, Kent tells the story of the Salem witch trials and, more specifically, of one of the first women irreparably affected by it.
I actually started reading The Heretic’s Daughter a few years ago. I didn’t get very far before realizing I wasn’t in the mood for that sort of book. It’s bleak, sparse, and full of foreboding, which I suppose one might expect given its subject. I didn’t realize until I’d gotten into the audiobook just how effectively the setting and style create a space in which the story can take place.
From the start, Sarah’s family is isolated. Regarded warily by the townspeople, they are marginally accepted only because Martha’s mother, with whom the family lives, is well connected. The focus is on Sarah’s family, with only the occasional neighbor or townsman wandering across the lonely scene. Sarah is soon sent to stay with her aunt and uncle; while there, she has no contact with her immediate family, or with anyone outside her relations’ home, for that matter. For me, as a reader, not knowing about the world beyond Sarah’s immediate perception created a strong feeling of foreboding. Because I knew something of the witch trials’ history, I could see where certain actions or rumors might lead but could only stand by and watch events unfold.
When the larger world does encroach on the Carrier family’s isolation, the result is disastrous. I’ll leave the details for you to discover yourself. What has been building, unseen, for months comes crashing down, sweeping the Carriers up in the witch-hunting frenzy. I can’t think of the last time I read a book that brought a historic event to life so vividly.
I appreciated the character development in The Heretic’s Daughter. It wasn’t so much that the characters themselves, aside from Sarah, showed great changes. Instead, it was Sarah who came to understand her family: her father, her mother, her brother. Through her eyes and along with her, the reader comes to understand each character’s personality and motives as well as his or her relationship with Sarah. There were several very touching moments when Sarah finally understood something about someone in her family, and Kent always found a poignant way of relating them.
Kathleen Kent is actually one of Martha Carrier’s descendants, and she spent a great deal of time researching, reconstructing, and fictionalizing her ancestor’s life. That personal connection between author and story is something I appreciate knowing. I find it adds another dimension to a book, whether that book is fact or fiction.
Mare Winningham read The Heretic’s Daugher for the audio version. Her voice was right for Sarah: plain, straightforward, steady. I deeply enjoyed her narration and would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in listening to The Heretic’s Daughter.
What books have you read in which the atmosphere created by the author plays a large part in setting the scene?