Kathleen Kent: The Heretics Daughter

by Rachel Baker on September 3, 2008

Growing up, Kathleen Kent heard stories about her ancestors, the Carrier family, and the lives they led. She knew of the nineteen men and women who were executed because they were found guilty of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials. She came to understood these men and women were not witches, but unfortunate victims of the times they lived in.  Kent also knew, she was a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier, the woman Cotton Mathis declared was the ‘Queen of Hell’.  Knowing all this, it makes perfect sense her first novel would take its readers back in time to an appalling time in our country’s history we came to refer to as the Salem Witch Trials.

After reading The Heretic’s Daughter, I was curious about how accurate the events in this book were.  Based on court records, Martha Carrier was in fact tried, convicted and hung for being a witch.  She also remained unyielding in her innocence plea when others were telling the courts what they wanted to hear in order to save their own lives, so much so that she pointed out the ridiculousness of the court for listening to the young girls’ accusations. Martha did have a daughter named Sarah, and three of her children were arrested and tried for being witches (eventually they were released). The accounts of the examinations and convictions of the men and women who were accused of being witches and making pacts with Satan by their neighbors, family members, and friends, and the makeshift court systems procedures were truly horrifying. The dialogue [in the book] from the examination scenes were true to the case files.  The Protestant way of life also appears to be pretty accurate in regards to daily life.

The Heretic’s Daughter opens with:

“In 1630 Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony took a small group of men and women from the old England to the new.These Puritans, so they were named, would make a place in the colonies by surviving war, plague, and the work of the Devil in a small village called Salem.  One woman and her family would stand against religious tyranny, suffering, imprisonment, torture, and death.  Her outrage and defiant words were recorded by Cotton Mather, who called her “The Queen of Hell.” Her name was Martha Carrier.”

How curious?!  Religious tyranny, suffering, imprisonment, torture, and death… and defiance to boot?!  Those are the makings of a great story!

If that doesn’t catch your attention, the author so graciously shares a letter dated from November 17, 1752 signed by Sarah Carrier Chapman to her granddaughter:

“…What follows is my own written history, pieces of with may have been told to you from your earliest childhood…My life is very like a bedtime fables a parent might tell an errant child to frighten him into obedience: the stuff of nightmares.  But, oh my child, this nightmare was not drawn from the well of fanciful hearth tales but woven from the blood and bones and tears of your own family.  I have set down my recollections and my involvement in the events surrounding the Salem Village witch trials…I pray that with this record you will understand, and come to forgive me for what I did.”

I was hooked when I put two and two together – the queen of hell is the letter writer’s mother.  I had to know what she needed forgiveness for.  Little did I know I would be taken on a tragic story of a mother’s self-sacrifice so her children could go on to live out their lives.

The story of the Carrier family’s role in the Salem Witch Trials is accounted by Sarah Carrier, Martha’s daughter.  While there is no way for the reader to truly understand what young Sarah’s life may have been like, or what it must have been like to fear the plague or attacks by natives, Kent did an impressive job of relaying the daily routine and the emotions which must have been common place during the time period. The descriptions of events and settings added the necessary ambiance to a horrific series of events in our history.  When we are taught about the Salem Witch Trials in school, we don’t get what life was like and how certain events led up to the trials.  Kent opens our eyes to the tragic deflection of responsibility from inadequate leadership to blaming personality flaws and spiritual infidelities of the villagers.

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent is a successful first novel which will appeal to not just historical fiction readers, but also readers who enjoy reading about parental love and self-sacrifice in the face of societal insanity.


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