Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Book Review: "The Heretic's Daughter"

Kathleen Kent's debut novel, The Heretic's Daughter (releasing this week from Little, Brown) is a very impressive first book indeed. It tells the story of Martha Carrier, one of those hanged as a witch at Salem in 1692, through the eyes of her 10-year old daughter Sarah who, along with four of her five siblings, was jailed alongside her mother on suspicion of witchcraft. Kent turns their harrowing real-life experiences into an absorbing study of family loyalty and the social brutality that marked the New England witchcraft scares of the late seventeenth century.

Kent pulls off a feat that is notoriously tricky to do, narrating a book from the perspective of a young child. She allows Sarah to control the narrative, not endowing her with wisdom or foresight beyond her years but capturing the innocence and incomplete understanding of the events happening around her as her family is dragged into the drama of the witchcraft accusations.

The characters here are all human, real in their grittiness and their faults, their spirit and their power. There are no caricatures here, but portraits. Kent's deep research into the people and the Puritan culture of the time is evident in every page, and my only serious gripe with this book is the lack of a historical note explaining the departures taken from the historical record. I read an ARC, though, so hopefully this fault is remedied in the final published version.

I don't recall reading a better fictional treatment of the Salem crisis, so for those interested in the period or the subject matter, I do suggest this one.