Saturday, 21 March 2015

Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

3.5 stars

Heretic's Daughter is a slow moving yet effective portrayal of a family's life in 17th century America, and how that family was ripped apart by religious extremism and ignorance in one of the more shameful episodes of American history - the Salem witch trials.

Young Sarah Carrier's family is a typical one of its time, their days governed by the back-breaking work needing to be performed daily to ensure the family's survival, the monotony of which is only broken by outbreaks of disease, fear of Indian raids and visits to the town meeting-house to bask in the spite and ill-feeling of their neighbours who are already eager to lay the blame for an outbreak of smallpox at the Carrier's door. 
Sarah's mother, Martha, has already made a few enemies thanks to her strong will and sharp tongue, but black looks and malicious gossip are a kiss compared to what's to come as the hysteria over and persecution of so-called witches spreads from Salem Town, and the Carrier family find themselves just one of the many victims fallen prey to the townsfolk using religious doctrine to settle vendettas, jealousies and grudges by casting accusing fingers at their neighbours, and even members of their own families. Imprisoned in appalling conditions and executed if they protested their innocence, many would 'confess' and so be set free (in an example of the sort of insane troll logic that seemed to govern the time), while many others (most of them women) would lose their lives before reason could prevail.

The Salem witch trials are a potent example of some of the evils perpetrated by those claiming to do God's work, and Heretic's Daughter does a good job of depicting the plights of those accused. How the towns concerned recovered from this appalling episode isn't explored, and I had to wonder how one would forgive and move on from such terrible crimes. But then I'm not a particularly forgiving sort, and would hope that those responsible had their lives ruined by guilt (although I'm sure they simply cherry-picked some other piece of doctrine that absolved them of any wrong-doing, before quickly returning to using their religion as a stick to beat other people with).

If you're after something fact-filled you're probably better off looking in the non-fiction aisle but if you want something that brings the people of the time to real life, you could certainly do a lot worse than by picking this up.

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