I read The Heretic’s Daughter as part of a Buddy Read with Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea. To see her thoughts on this book, head over to her blog, and then stay for her fantastic recommendations!
The Heretic’s Daughter
by Kathleen Kent
From Goodreads: Martha Carrier was one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and willful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. Often at odds with one another, mother and daughter are forced to stand together against the escalating hysteria of the trials and the superstitious tyranny that led to the torture and imprisonment of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. This is the story of Martha’s courageous defiance and ultimate death, as told by the daughter who survived.
Kathleen Kent is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier. She paints a haunting portrait, not just of Puritan New England, but also of one family’s deep and abiding love in the face of fear and persecution.
Danielle’s Questions for Me:
1. Did you feel that The Heretic’s Daughter read as historically accurate or detailed? Would it be safe to say that someone who is less familiar with the witch trials could pick this title up and obtain a fair depiction of what history tells us took place?
I keep going back and forth on this one. On one hand, the narrative provides a lot of detail about Martha Carrier’s story and shows how it must have felt while this pivotal historical event was unfolding around the family. On the other hand, it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of what happened in and around Salem in 1692. When it comes down it to, I think that someone unfamiliar with the historical events would find The Heretic’s Daughter to be an intriguing story about an individual family, while someone with more knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials would be able to place the Carriers’ story in the context of history and better understand what they were up against.
2. Often in stories such as this, I find that I need a character who challenges the dated beliefs and concepts. I know that you and I both discussed this desire. Did you find that Martha or her daughter lived up to those expectations?
Martha did that to a degree, though it wasn’t due to the author making a specific effort to make her more modern. Martha Carrier was an outspoken woman in reality. Certain documents from the trial are presented between sections of the story, so readers can see for themselves that she was willing to stand up for what she believed in. I wish there had been more from Martha in the whole narrative, as her willingness to stand up to the church leaders and condemn the lies being told about her was a refreshing change from the other characters, who tended to roll over under the gaze of the church elders, or who were willfully spiteful. I had to admire her willingness to do what she had to in order to save her family, regardless of the cost to herself.
I can’t decide if Sarah’s willfulness was due to her challenging the beliefs of her time, or if it was due to her being a child. She was very much her mother’s daughter in most respects, but lacked some Martha’s fearlessness. Much of that was, I think, due to her age. She was only about ten years old through most of the book, and I don’t expect a girl of her age to have the necessary experience to be able to stand up and defy her elders the way Martha did.
3.How did you feel about the slower narration on a personal level? Did it contribute to the setting or did the slower pace hinder your experience?
I go back and forth on this one, too. There were times where the slower pace helped me get a better understanding of characters like Martha and Sarah, and I enjoyed the relationship between Sarah and her cousin. But when it came to some long passages about Thomas Carrier (Sarah’s father), I started to get bored. I wasn’t as interested in him, and I wondered why there was so much said about him when the point of the book was intended to be about Martha and Sarah.
At other times, though, like in the prison scenes, the slowness of the narrative helped me to get a sense of how dull and miserable the days were for the prisoners who were locked up in the cellar with little to no hope of a reprieve.
4. Martha and Sarah seemed to have a strained relationship at the best of times. How do you feel that their relationship evolved as a result of Martha’s decisions to maintain her innocence?
I think Martha’s decision inspired Sarah to be more courageous in the ways that a girl or woman of her time and place could be. The version of Sarah who emerged from the end of the book would have the strength to look any accuser in the eye and not blink, and would speak truth to power when that power was trying to tell lies about her.
Martha also taught Sarah about a mother’s love. Children don’t always appreciate when a mother has to be hard on them or discipline them. They just see a grown-up who doesn’t understand their situation. As the story progressed, though, Sarah gained insight about Martha and began to realize why she kept her secrets or refused to confess to the crimes she was accused of, so Sarah could step into her mother’s shoes. In the moment when Sarah held her head up and declared, “I am my mother’s daughter”, it felt like everything Martha had done paid off. Perhaps Martha wouldn’t be there to watch her daughter grow to be a woman, but she gave Sarah the tools she would need to stand tall in every circumstance.
5. Did you walk away from anything of significance during your time with the book that you feel might still be relevant in today’s world?
Absolutely. The Salem Witch Trials were a dark spot in the history of early America when people allowed fear and superstition to overcome their reason and sent so many innocent people to their deaths. The same thing happens over and over. Whenever something bad happens people search for a culprit, and casting blame on someone who is different– whether they’re innocent or guilty– is easy for a mob to do. It’s hard to step back, take a breath, and think about the situation and find the right answer in the heat of the moment. It’s even harder to be like Martha Carrier and openly point out the lies that authority figures might promote in order to save their own skin or provide an answer that will satisfy a senseless mob. We don’t have to look very hard at our own history to find examples of this– McCarthyism of the 1950s, the Japanese internment camps of WWII, or people blaming refugees for anything that might be going wrong.
If The Heretic’s Daughter has any sort of lesson to impart, it’s that we should try to be like Martha Carrier and promote truth, no matter the cost.
My questions for Danielle:
1. Given that, in many cases, the property of people accused of or executed for witchcraft was confiscated, do you think the judges truly believed the witnesses’ accusations, or were they motivated by greed?
There definitely seemed to be several underlying motivational factors for the accusations occurring within The Heretic’s Daughter. I felt greed was among them for sure and struggled with the idea of confiscating family property. It was unjust on multiple levels. I do admit however, that the majority of the motivation reeked of a form of twisted revenge and hatred towards those the accusers felt had wronged or slighted them in some manner. The entire process was transparent and angering.
2. The author, Kathleen Kent, spent quite a lot of time on the story of Sarah’s father, Thomas Carrier. In the afterword, she mentions that she was planning to write a book about Thomas’s early life (it has since been published, and is titled ‘The Wolves of Andover‘). Did you find that all this talk about Thomas was necessary to the story, or did it feel like a setup for Kent’s next book?
I have to say that I felt Thomas contributed very little to the story as a whole. In fact, his character and his complacency angered me. I am leaning towards his emphasis as more of a segue to the next book. He didn’t work well for me. Honestly, I would not be inclined to read his story.
3. Given that the synopsis of The Heretic’s Daughter placed a heavy emphasis on Martha and Sarah’s relationship, do you feel that their relationship was fully developed, or did other relationships rival it in importance?
This is a tough question for myself. In the first half of the book I felt there was a lack of relationship between between mother and daughter that felt almost disconnected. Martha was presented as a hardened woman with little interest in building a significant connection with Sarah and her children. But as the story progressed and she began to confide in Sarah, there was a growth in their bond that I found to be of great importance. Sadly, it almost came to late for me. I am still on the fence about this, but feel the synopsis implies much more than was actually delivered in terms of their relationship.
4. How did you react to the racist descriptions of Native Americans that pop up throughout the story?
I struggled in a great way with the amount of racial slurs and depictions occurring, particularly in the first half of the story. But after reminding myself of the time and how dated the story was, I came to terms with the authenticity the author was establishing. So I was eventually able to respect her decision to remain true to the era and story. I think that it is important to keep in mind why author’s must implement harsher elements such as this if the wish to produce historical fiction that feels accurate.
5. Were you intrigued enough by The Heretic’s Daughter to read the follow-up book about Thomas and Martha’s early lives, The Wolves of Andover?
I really enjoyed The Heretic’s Daughter but will not be making the decision to continue at this time. I think the witch trials fascinate me enough to have captured my attention, but I do not believe Martha and Thomas’ story would.
This was a tricky book for me. At times, it was engrossing and I couldn’t put it down, but other times I couldn’t help but get distracted by just about anything that wasn’t the book, and it had everything to do with whether or not Martha was in the scene or not. For all that the synopsis states that The Heretic’s Daughter is about that relationship between a mother– Martha– and her daughter- Sarah- it feels like there’s precious little going on between them. But when they are together, the story leaps off the page. Martha is not the warmest of literary mothers, but she does impart to Sarah the necessary skills to stay alive in their harsh world, as well as the courage to be true to herself.
I have to admit that the Salem Witch Trials aren’t my favorite bit of history to study, but The Heretic’s Daughter gave me a lot more insight into the goings-on than I had before. I could see them as dimensional, flawed people instead of the paper cutouts that are glossed over in most media mentions of Salem.
I can’t decide if I would recommend this book or not. While there is a lot of information and insight that can be gleaned about that era, there was a lot that could have been trimmed out of the book. Much of Thomas Carrier’s story could have been edited out with little loss to the plot, and so most of his appearances felt like they were intended to promote interest in Kent’s follow-up to The Heretic’s Daughter. The occasional sluggishness of the narration also kept me from really enjoying it, and while I understand why much of it was there- to give the reader a sense of what life was really like for the settlers of 1690s Massachusetts- but it often slowed the story down a little too much.
If American historical fiction, Salem in particular, is your cup of tea, then it’s a good bet that The Heretic’s Daughter would be a good pick for you. If historical fiction isn’t your thing, then I would skip it.