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The Heretic's DaughterReview - The Heretic's Daughter
A Novel
by Kathleen Kent
Hachette Audio, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Jan 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 2)

This is an historical novel that weaves fact with invented narrative, told from the point of view of Sarah Carrier Chapman, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was hung as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.  Sarah tells her story looking back sixty years later, with an adult point of view, writing to her own granddaughter.  The novel spends much of its first half setting the context, starting in 1690, showing the religious devotion of the Carrier family, the hardship of the weather, the difficult of living off the land, the suspicion of New Englanders for each other, and the ravages of the small pox.  Kent sticks closely to the known facts of Martha Carrier's life, but of course she invents most of the details of her interactions with her family and neighbors.  It's a well-crafted work; in interview, Kent, who is a descendent of Martha, says she did a great deal of reading in preparing for her project, and this comes out well in the novel.  Being narrated from the perspective of Sarah with a straightforward plot, relating events when she was just a girl, the book has a feel of being a young adult novel, and it certainly may appeal to young readers. 

The unabridged audiobook is read by Mare Winningham, who does a great job giving a slightly historical tone to the words and accents.  Unfortunately, in her performance of Martha's Welsh husband Thomas, she proves unable to do anything like a Welsh accent, and Thomas sounds as if he were from Ireland.  Fortunately, this is only a slight fault, and makes little difference to the overall listening experience. 

Kent's novel shows how the difficulty of the times combined with people's readiness to believe supernatural nonsense gave rise to the readiness to believe the accusations of witchcraft.  In Kent's portrayal of the events, the Puritanism of the people had little do with their beliefs in witches, especially because they had little understanding of religions, being more concerned with survival.  But when one person resented another, they were ready to make accusations of witchery without even really thinking about it.  It is only with the combination of the legal system and the religious beliefs, with the shrill demonization of ordinary people by religious leaders such as Cotton Mather, that these ordinary grumblings about one's neighbors and competitors turn into a means to kill them.  With such a perspective, the book makes a strong case for keeping religion and political power as separate as possible. 

As a reader who normally avoids historical novels like the plague, I can report that I really enjoyed The Heretic's Daughter.  The writing is strong and the story is gripping. 

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© 2009 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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