Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: "The Heretic's Daughter," Kathleen Kent

By Paul Carrier

This evocative novel captures the horror that engulfed Salem, Massachusetts, and surrounding towns in 1692 and 1693, when accusations of witchcraft flew like a murder of crows.

The Heretic's Daughter forcefully conveys the impact of the witch hunt on some of the doomed innocents, particularly the family of Martha Carrier, the "heretic" of the title and a real-life victim of the madness of that era.

One of the novel's strengths is that it fully develops the key characters before the hysteria unfolds.

We acquire such a profound understanding of them as individuals that our empathy leaves us feeling personally betrayed when the crisis strikes them down.

The Heretic's Daughter also explains, through carefully crafted encounters and believable dialogue, how petty grievances, fits of anger, cutting remarks and idle threats could later be used as evidence of "witchcraft."

And it shows us a world turned upside down, in which accused "witches" could save themselves by admitting their guilt, while those who stood firm and proclaimed their innocence were sent to the gallows.

The reader comes away from The Heretic's Daughter with the impression that the witch hunt occurred at a turning point in the intellectual life of America. It was a time when superstition remained strong but reason, independent thinking and skepticism were slowly - all too slowly, as it turned out - gaining the upper hand.

The novelist is a descendant of the historical Martha Carrier, who died during the witch trials. Despite our shared family name, I am not related to Martha Carrier, although I would be very proud to claim her as an ancestor if that were the case.