The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Nine-year-old Sarah Carrier has moved with her family from Billerica to Andover, Massachusetts.  She travels with her parents, three older brothers and baby sister bringing smallpox to the small and devout town where her mother and aunt were raised by her grandmother. Although the family is immediately quarantined, Sarah’s father is able to sneak Sarah and her sister Hannah off to their aunt’s household out-of-town, where both girls revel in the kind of attention they don’t get at home.  Sarah, who has always had a contentious relationship with her mother, is angry and resentful when she returns to live with her family months later.

Though Sarah’s mother, Martha, tries to warn her of the importance of family and sticking together, Sarah is fixated on her uncle and his family and continues to dream of the life that she and her sister are missing out on with them, a life that she believes her mother has stolen from her.  She doesn’t pay attention to the feud that has developed between her mother and her aunt’s husband over the land that her mother has inherited upon her grandmother’s death.  This dispute escalates dramatically, and with deadly consequences, with the onset of the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.

I loved that this novel was so rich and finely woven with detail.  There are two stories being told here, and Kent does a remarkable job with both of them. Just as compelling as the story of the Salem Witch trials and Sarah and her family’s involvement, is the story of this family struggling to make a living within a community where they are neither welcomed nor accepted, and whose beliefs they don’t fully share.  I was transported as I got to see the workings of the farm, the division of labor for the chores, and the complex relationship that Sarah has with all the members of her family.  Kent seamlessly creates a world of words where the human drama and emotion are complemented by a stunning picture of what it was like to live during this moment in history.

The tensions of the strained mother-daughter relationship are beautifully rendered, and delicately balanced so that I felt for both sides, even though Sarah is telling the story. Martha was young and trying to raise several children with the man whom she married, but was considered beneath her station.  She is also a very strong woman living in a time when strong woman were not often rewarded but likely to be punished. Each of Kent’s sentences are rich in language and history.  It was also very interesting to me to see a nine-year old portrayed as such a young adult.  I am aware that we now drag  out childhood and adolescence much longer than at any other time in history, but even knowing that it was mind-blowing to see the responsibilities that Sarah had, and the hard work that she did, not to mention the emotional component of what was required of her in her ordeal with her family.

Listen, I could go on and on about what I loved about this story.  Sarah’s relationship with her brother Tom.  Sarah’s odd relationship with her taciturn father.  The mystery that surrounds  her father and thereby the family, that makes them outcasts among their peers.  But I won’t.  You should just read this book. It was really, really , really good excellent. I’m keeping my copy to re-read!

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