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Merle

Merle

The Heretic's Daughter - Kathleen Kent So much has been written about the Salem witch trials that the first question any new book has to answer is "what does this book add?" And so many of those books are written for children or teens that I was interested to see how the material would be treated differently in a work for adults. As it turns out, The Heretic's Daughter is a competent novel, and it does bring a few fresh elements to the table, but it reads as if written for younger readers.

The book is told by Sarah Carrier, who's 9-10 years old in the two years covered. According to the prologue, she's writing this as an old woman in a letter to her granddaughter, but really it's just regular first-person narration, to the point that the prologue feels as if it were tacked on late in the process. And then the last chapter simply tells us what happened to all the characters for the rest of their lives--something the granddaughter would presumably already know, and which might have fit better in an Author's Note.

I spent the first 2/3 of this book interested but underwhelmed. We see a lot of daily life; Sarah's relationships with her family (in particular her stormy relationship with her mother, the "heretic" of the title) are established; her mother makes enemies of various neighbors and relatives. This dragged on too much for my taste: we know that all these grudges and resentments will inevitably result in accusations of witchcraft, and I wanted the book to get to the point. The last 1/3, however, once the children are arrested, is quite powerful. Most of this section takes place in the Salem jail, which did not feature in the other Salem witch trials books I've read, and it's horrifying and a tearjerker. I personally would have liked to see less of the buildup and more of the aftermath, but in the end it's quite an effective story.

The bigger issue with this book is that it is as black-and-white as a typical children's tale. While this may be inevitable from a single first-person narrator, and a child at that, Sarah's looking back on the events from 60 years later offers an opportunity to temper that problem. But it doesn't. There's no insight into why people might suddenly start accusing their neighbors of witchcraft and sending them to their deaths. We see a little of the tumultuous times--there's sickness, and there's talk of Indian attacks, but nothing to explain what made Salem in 1692 so different from other places and times with similar troubles but in which people retained their sanity. So in the end, it's a book that makes readers shake their heads at how horrible people can be to one another, but without any real nuance or depth of understanding.

All that said, it's perfectly competent in other ways. The Carrier family and their relationships are decently well-developed. The writing is competent, with an acceptable recreation of an 18th-century voice. There's a decent sense of place and the author seems to have done her research, although she often sticks chunks of it into the text all at once.

In the end, this was a quick, easy read and the last third made it worth my while. But it is perhaps better-suited for younger readers than for adults.