Review: Salem witchcraft hysteria in Kathleen Kent's 'Heretic's Daughter'

For centuries, Americans have autopsied the notorious Salem witchcraft trials, in which the worst elements of the national psyche boiled up and overflowed. Sanctimonious Puritans played on community fears to bring down neighbors. Panic fueled by hysteria turned the society into an engine of destruction.

In The Crucible, Arthur Miller paralleled the Salem trials and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Now an eloquent first novelist approaches this shameful segment of the past from a personal angle. Kathleen Kent writes in the character of an ancestor: Sarah Carrier, jailed at 11 because hysterical neighbors thought she was a witch.

Although Sarah's taciturn father is still on the scene, her intelligent, sharp-tongued mother, Martha, is the real head of the Carrier family. Sarah feels like the unwanted child. "At times I suspected my mother had no tender feelings for any of us . . ."

Things pick up for the girl when her parents dispatch her and a sister to an uncle's house to wait out the plague that fells her brother. There's trouble in the prosperous Toothaker family, but Sarah won't know the extent of it until greedy relatives start their whispering campaign. Martha's enemies in Andover, Mass., throw her in jail with dozens of other innocents. She will be hanged as a witch in 1692.

Ostensibly written by Sarah in old age, the prose is often too flowery and rhapsodic for the narrator or her memories. All is forgiven, however, once the real trouble begins.

A mad dog comes into the yard: "There is a space of time before a mad animal charges, a space that may last a few heartbeats or a few minutes, as though the thickness sickens the brain as well as the blood and makes the course of thought sluggish and interrupted."

Let this stand for everything that follows. The horrifying descriptions show Kent at her direct, energetic and visceral best.

Kit Reed's new novel is "Enclave."

The Heretic's Daughter

By Kathleen Kent

Little, Brown, 332 pages, $24.99

Review: Salem witchcraft hysteria in Kathleen Kent's 'Heretic's Daughter' 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 3:30am]

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