Power Games in Puritan New England

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

To be honest, I wanted to get this book out of the way. I didn’t warm to the cover at all, particularly as when you see it in a stack it stares at you; it gave me the willies one morning when I woke up to see it looking at me!

The subject-matter of The Heretic’s Daughter is also rather unsettling. The background is the hard Puritan life in New England at the time of the Salem witch trials. The author is a tenth generation descendant of the Carrier family whose life is told within, so it is based on a true story.

The narrative is told entirely through the eyes of nine year old Sarah who has to go and live with her aunt and uncle when smallpox comes to their community. The rest of her family stay with her grandmother in Andover near Salem, but unwittingly they took the pox with them there – not a good start to life in a new town. In these opening chapters, much is made of the difference in character between her aloof parents and warmer relatives. When Sarah returns to her parents, a feud soon develops between the families over the inheritance of her grandmother’s estate. Sarah, being just a child finds it hard to understand the adults’ enmity.

In the second part of the novel, the Salem witch trials are wreaking havoc amongst these communities. Sadly, Sarah’s herbalist mother’s reputation for plain-speaking, together with foment whipped up by the family feud leads to her being denounced as a witch. Refusing to admit to this, Martha is jailed in Salem, along with those whose names we may be familiar with from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Then, they come for Sarah and her brothers. The story tells of the terrible conditions in the cells at Salem, of Martha’s moral strength in the face of certain death, and her bonds with Sarah.

The first half of this novel was rather overlong, although we certainly do get a feel for their hard lives of toil and living under fear of attack from the natives. There was little hint of the poisonous paranoia that would later infect the community like an epidemic though. All the while, the preachers postured and played at politics with their flocks, until the actions of a group of silly girls set it all off and we know what happened.

Telling the story through the eyes of a child does give a different perspective; Sarah has to grow up fast and learn to do whatever she must to survive. A sub-plot about the early career of Sarah’s father before he emigrated, goes nowhere and detracts slightly from the focus on the witch-trials. Compared with The Crucible, (and that is impossible to ignore), I felt it was emotionally much less involving, but this book was nevertheless a very readable debut. (7/10, Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.)

P.S. I read Witch Child by Celia Rees earlier this year, reviewed here – a teen/crossover novel covering much of the same territory – superb!

0 thoughts on “Power Games in Puritan New England

  1. Teresa says:

    I've been seeing this book on tons of blogs, and everyone seems to love it to pieces, but I've been skeptical (as I always am when *everyone* loves a book). You've pretty much confirmed what I thought–that it's a decent read, but not spectacular.If you're ever looking for a good nonfiction account of the witch trials, try In the Devil's Snare.

  2. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Teresa, it's fairly new to the UK, so I haven't seen any reviews here. 'A decent read but not spectacular' sums it up neatly in my view. I'll certainly check out In the Devil's Snare, thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Lana says:

    I really enjoyed The Heretic's Daughter and found it to be an emotionally compelling story – though not one actually about the Salem Witch Trials (which was unexpected). I agree that Kent does little to evoke the hysteria and paranoia that must have sparked the trials. Of course, my preference may have a lot to do with the fact that I very much dislike The Crucible.I enjoyed your review, so I've linked to it here.

  4. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Hi Lana, nice to meet you. Maybe it was because I was expecting the Salem witch trials to come up sooner, that I was slightly underwhelmed by the main story of Sarah's journey …

  5. Samantha says:

    I have this one languishing in a tbr pile somewhere. I am now thinking I may pass it straight onto my mum 😉

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