Even now, no one really knows what caused the atrocities known as the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, more than 150 people—mostly women—were arrested and accused of witchery. Historians have blamed everything from Puritan misogyny, to landlust, to ergot poisoning from a fungus that grows on rye and can cause psychosis. Kathleen Kent’s debut, The Heretic’s Daughter, a novelization of a true event, tells the story of one family caught up in the madness.
The Carriers are not like other Puritan families. The patriarch, Thomas, is over seven feet tall. His much younger wife, Martha, is difficult and sharp tongued, and no one knows this more than her daughter Sarah, the book’s narrator. Their lives are somber, their days dominated by backbreaking work. The family members are, perhaps, not as kind to each other as they could be. Dangers are everywhere, from murderous raids by Indians whose land is being encroached upon, to illnesses and calamities that know no remedy. When we first meet the Carriers, they’re making their way, in the middle of another hard winter, from the town of Billerica in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the neighboring town of Andover. They believe they’re outrunning the smallpox. They’re not. And this is where the trouble begins.
Kent recounts the townspeople’s case against Goodwife Carrier, incident by small incident. Her family brought the smallpox, she bewitched a fire so that it blew onto someone else’s land and not hers, her insolent tongue caused livestock to sicken and die. Tellingly, there’s a beef between her husband and brother-in-law, and her nephew wants her property. Soon Martha is arrested and brought 17 miles to Salem, where she’s accused by that lovely bunch of girls from The Crucible.
A descendent of the Carriers, Kent relates the story quietly, with moments of beauty that give way to horror, then to redemption. The Heretic’s Daughter not only chronicles the insanity of the witch trials, but a family learning—maybe too late—to truly value each other.
Arlene McKanic writes from South Carolina.