The Salem Witch Trials are a popular subject for books, fiction and nonfiction alike. It was a shameful, shocking moment in the history of the United States, one that continues to hold a certain fascination for Americans.
Nearly every aspect of this event has been covered already, which makes writing another novel about it a bit of a risky undertaking. It would have to be done well in order to avoid redundancy, and to keep readers interested. In The Heretic’s Daughter, Kathleen Kent has taken on that challenge, and succeeded.
The author writes from the perspective of a young girl whose mother was one of the accused, even though the family lived not in Salem, but in nearby Andover. The narrator, Sarah Carrier, shows her mother as a woman who is not a saint, not a sweet, mild-mannered Puritan housewife like so many of the condemned. Instead, the townspeople’s suspicions of Martha Carrier seem much more understandable. She has a sharp tongue, herbal knowledge, and a dislike for convention. These were dangerous attributes to have in such a time and place.
This book is not only about the witch hunt of colonial New England, but it is also a story of a young girl’s strained relationship with a difficult mother. Sarah’s feelings towards the outwardly chilly Martha are ever shifting, as she goes from despising her at one moment to yearning for her affection in the next.
When the Carrier family is invaded by the smallpox virus, Sarah and her baby sister are sent to live with Martha’s sister and brother-in-law for an extended period of time. This confuses Sarah’s already mixed emotions regarding her family, and she becomes very uncertain of where her loyalties should lie.
As Sarah grows older and eventually returns home, she begins to understand who her parents are as individuals, what drives them, and who they used to be. She learns the reasons behind their decisions and the cause of the tension between her parents and her aunt and uncle. These discoveries, along with the occurrences of her present world, are heavy ones for a girl of her age, but she does the best she can with them and makes some difficult decisions of her own.
The Heretic’s Daughter is a serious, weighty book, given the subject material and the nature of Ms. Kent’s characters. It still has moments of beauty and hope, and it is interesting for both the historical value and the story of a mother and daughter.
While I enjoyed the book, it will not become one of my favorites about the witch trials, because there are others that work the human interest angle a bit more successfully. The characters in this story did not inspire as much sympathy as was perhaps desirable. On the other hand, that very fact is one of the characteristics that makes it different from its peers, one of the reasons it stands out, which is necessary in a flooded genre.
The one problem I had with the technical aspect of this novel has to do with a writing rule that everyone seems to agree on: the “show, don’t tell” commandment. Some authors just don’t seem to be able to show, and have to rely on telling. This is not the case with the author of The Heretic’s Daughter, at least not from what I could see. Kathleen Kent does a lovely job of showing. Sometimes, however, she tells as well.
Not with annoying frequency, but just often enough to notice, a description would start out with subtlety and then get weighed down with superfluous explanation. To me, this is not bad writing as much as it is poor editing. The editor’s responsibility is to stand back, look more objectively at the language than the author is able to do, and catch these details.
This is a very minor flaw in the grand scheme of the book, and it should not deter anyone from reading it. I do not fault Ms. Kent for it, nor would I ever call her a bad writer – quite the opposite. She has created a story concerning events that we have all read about time and time again, and yet she convinces the reader to continue turning the pages to find out what happens next. There is a term for that, and I call it good writing.