Saturday, November 26, 2011

252 (2011 #57). The Heretic's Daughter

by Kathleen Kent,
read by Mare Winningham

Dallas resident Kathleen Kent grew up hearing many legends about her maternal grandmother back nine generations, Martha Allen Carrier - one of the nineteen people hung during the famous Salem witch trials of 1692.  Kent spent five years researching the trials and writing this book  In it, she takes the point of view of Martha's daughter Sarah, writing to her own granddaughter in 1752.

The story begins in December 1690, when Sarah is nine, with her family moving from Billerica, Massachusetts, to nearby Andover, to live with Martha's mother.  The family has a troubled past, and brings smallpox with them, which doesn't endear them to their new neighbors.  Sarah and her younger sister Hannah are sent to live with her mother's sister's family, Roger and Mary Toothaker, back in Billerica.  At first, life with the Toothakers and her cousin Margaret seems idyllic to Sarah, especially after she returns home after the epidemic.  In time though, Sarah grows to appreciate her parents more, particularly as she learns the not-so-nice truth about her uncle Roger.

In May 1692, Roger and Martha are among those arrested for witchcraft, and Margaret and Mary are arrested to break Roger.  Sarah's father, Thomas Carrier, probably would have been arrested too, if everyone wasn't afraid of him - he is seven feet tall and rumored to be the executioner of Charles I back in England.  Having some warning before she is arrested, Martha tells Sarah that she and her siblings should tell the judges what they want to hear in order to save themselves, but that "someone must speak for the truth of things" (page 178) - and that will be Martha.  She also makes Sarah promise to protect a red book where Martha has written the family's history, which they bury in a field.

Ultimately Sarah and her brothers are arrested, but even those who "confess" are thrown into prison.  The harsh realities of prison life are contrasted with the difficulties of everyday living in colonial Massachusetts before the trials.  Kent does an excellent job depicting this dreariness and despair, as well as Sarah's growing realization of the love and strength of her parents.

Kent's novel gives weight to some theories (also discussed in Marc Aronson's Witch-Hunt) that the accusations of witchcraft were often made due to disputes over land and other property.  For example, the Toothaker's son Allen thinks he should have inherited his grandmother's property, and so testifies against Martha.  Kent incorporates the transcripts of the testimonies of Martha's accusers, who are characters in the novel with whom Martha (and sometimes Sarah) clashed.

This was an outstanding book that I highly recommend, especially to any one interested in the Salem witch trials. Actress Mare Winningham is a good choice as the audiobook reader, accurately reflecting Sarah's changing emotions as she matures and undergoes experiences no 11-year-old should have.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A paperback copy of the book for reference was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

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