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Book Review: The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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Kathleen Kent’s offering, The Heretic’s Daughter, is a stunning debut novel —  truly one of the best I’ve ever read. Hewn from her own family history and intensive research, Kent shares the life of her grandmother nine generations back – Martha Carrier – who was hanged for witchcraft during the trials of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. While not falling within the generally prescribed boundaries of traditional Christian genres, this beautiful work of historical fiction is a must-read for all believers – if only to prevent similar atrocities from taking place in the name of Christ again.

Written from the perspective of Martha’s daughter Sarah, readers are immediately immersed in a bleak, harsh landscape. Living under the shadow of smallpox, threat of attacks from surrounding natives, and the oppressive leadership of religious zealots in most towns, 11-year-old Sarah’s life offers little in the way of warmth or comfort. Born into a stoic, and mysteriously set-apart family, the trails of Sarah’s childhood will soon pale in comparison to the terrible impact the Salem witch-trials will leave in its wake.

Deftly drawing together the strands of historical detail, coming-of-age story, and rich, spell-binding prose, The Heretic’s Daughter is both unforgettable and heart-breaking.

“We rose each day to put on steaming, dirty clothes, we chewed out flattened bread and moistened it with water so that it would not catch in our gullets, we wiped the sweat and chased the flies, and ate our soup at noontide, and pounded our fraying implements against post and stump, shredded our meat for supper, and laid ourselves down again at evening-tide to wrestle against our dreams and our fetid sheets.”

Though an exceptionally long sentence, this excerpt somehow encapsulates the struggle that the Carrier family faced. The bleakness of their situation more apparent as Martha stood by her conviction to maintain her innocence even as she was confronted with threats of death. Both lyrical and haunting Kent’s prose would be unbearably dark without the hope of family solidarity and the slow unfolding of understanding that maturity brings in relation to one's parents.

Believers may be concerned with how Christians are presented in this work. Kent correctly portrays a harsh, religious spirit of judgment, condemnation, manipulation, and fear, as the travesty that it is. However, she balances this portrait with characters who express God’s loving-kindness through their words and acts; those who preach grace and mercy, those who pray with and minister to the falsely accused, those who work to discredit the trials and eventually result in their closure.

The Heretic’s Daughter is not a happy, feel-good novel, but it is a necessary one. In my life as a former witch I was terribly misinformed as to the nature, motivation, and victims of the crimes committed in Salem. After my rebirth as a Christian, I hadn’t taken the time to re-examine the history surrounding that town’s blighted past. I am deeply thankful for Kent’s balanced, accurate, and oh – so deeply moving, sharing of her family’s history with us.


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