The first thing I noticed about The Heretic’s Daughter when I opened the package it came in was that I had been sent a large-print edition. Seriously, the print is huge — I just measured some capital letters and they’re fully 4 mm tall. And it was a bit strange to be reading print that big, but boy, did it make me feel like a speedy reader! With only 27 lines per page I at least felt like I was turning to the next one every twenty seconds. It was intense.
Not that any of you care about how big the type was. Get to the content!, I hear you cry.
Here’s the jacket blurb:
In 1752 Sarah Carrier Chapman, confined to her home and weak with infirmity, writes a letter to her granddaughter, revealing the secret she has guarded closely for six decades. It is a haunting account of the horrors that enveloped a New England town called Salem, and compelled Sarah, then just a young girl, to make a decision that would change her life forever.
A direct descendant of Martha Carrier, Kathleen Kent is also a writer of uncommon gifts, bringing to life Puritan New England in its darkest hour as well as a family united by their faith in the truth and their love for one another. Harrowing, moving, and utterly unforgettable, The Heretic’s Daughter marks the debut of a remarkable new storyteller.
So. The Heretic’s Daughter. To clarify the immediately above, Sarah Carrier Chapman is the daughter of Martha Carrier, from whom Kathleen Kent is descended. The blurb doesn’t really make that clear — but never fear, the text does!
This is a story told in a frame narrative — the entire thing is couched in a letter to Sarah Carrier’s granddaughter. That only seems to come into play in the first chapter, though; the rest of the tale is told diary-style and if memory serves me correctly, the granddaughter is never mentioned again. This is actually good for the story, as it lends the narrative a certain immediacy which might otherwise be lacking. Sarah is telling the story of her life when she’s an old woman, but adopts a child’s tone; it reads like everything is happening right then. This is good.
The heretic of the title, if you haven’t guessed, is Martha Carrier, Sarah’s mother. After the Carriers move to a new town (unfortunately bringing smallpox with them) conflict with other villagers and inter-family tensions — plus the general hysteria of the witch trials — lead to Martha Carrier being denounced, tried, and eventually hung as a witch. Sarah herself is also imprisoned over the course of her mother’s incarceration, along with her aunt, cousin, and several brothers. Let me tell you, I can’t think of anywhere worse to spend a couple of months than in a seventeenth-century prison.
Although Sarah is the narrator and it is her experiences that are recorded, the true focus of the novel is on her mother, Martha. Denounced as a witch, she refused to capitulate to the demands of the magistrates; her denial of witchdom is what landed her children in jail. Martha is a woman of tremendous courage and integrity — for which she is killed (and, later, exonerated). She literally gives up her life to save her children:
She spoke with such intensity that I blinked against her breath. “You know where I go tomorrow?” I nodded. “Do you know why?” I nodded again, but she said, “Say it, then.” I opened my mouth and said in a small voice, “Because they say you are a witch.”
“And do you know why Mary and Margaret are arrested?” she asked. And I responded, “Because they are believed to be witches also.”
And here she put her hands on my shoulders so that I could look nowhere but into her eyes and she said, “No. They are arrested to make Uncle confess and in the hopes that they will in turn cry out against others for practicing witchcraft. They will come for me tomorrow, but I will not confess and I will not cry out on anyone. Do you know what that means?”
“When they cannot make me confess they will come to my family and it will not matter that you are a child. There are children in Salem Town jail even now. She saw the look in my eyes and knelt in front of me, holding me tight in her arms.
“If they come for you, you must tell them anything they want to hear to save yourself. And you must tell Richard and Andrew and Tom to do the same.” (pp. 253-4).
Yeah, things get kind of intense around Salem. And although the story is in many effects a tragedy, there are high notes. Martha Carrier’s integrity and dedication to the truth is admirable. The tenderness between Sarah’s parents is notable, especially toward the end of the book (and let it be known: the father also has secrets! Duhn duhn duhn!). I thought that The Heretic’s Daughter was a very enjoyable read and will be looking for more from Kathleen Kent.