Salem, Massachusetts, 19th August 1692. Martha Carrier was accused, tried and hanged as a witch.
The Carrier family, Thomas and Martha, with their children Richard, Andrew, Sarah, Tom and little Hannah move to the village of Salem to stay with their maternal Grandmother. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier, is bright and willful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. Often at odds with one another, mother and daughter are forced to stand together against the escalating witch hysteria of trials, imprisonment and execution of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft.
This story is told by her daughter Sarah who survived the ordeal. This is one of those books where the ending is known, and the survivors are identified. Yet I read it because the subject matter, “witches”, is enticing. I read the book with accompanied reading guide.
When Sarah and Hannah were sent off to their Uncle Roger and Aunt Mary Toothtaker to avoid the small pox epidemic, Sarah preferred her cousin’s Margaret’s family to hers. Finding a confidante out of Margaret, Sarah found human bonding never before experienced in her home. However, as Sarah’s mother, Martha reminded, using the polished beautiful poisonous mushroom as parable, all things are not what it seems on the surface, especially in the Toothtaker’s household.
The breakthrough of the mother-daughter relationship happened when they share a secret. Secret of the red book of their family history…
Sharing secrets is the way in which women tie themselves together, for it reveals complicity and trust. Holding secrets shows trustworthiness and a sort of quiet defiance. It is a natural thing for a female to hold secrets within her breasts until the time is ripe to release them. Does it not follow the way in which her body is formed? A woman is made with that dark and mysterious recess that can grow a child safely until the child is ready to come out onto the birthing bed. And like birthing, secrets present themselves in many ways. Some slip easily into the world, others must be torn out, if the body is unwilling.
I was asked by the reading guide what was it about Martha’s character that antagonise the neighbours? Martha is a hard, uncompromising woman who speaks her mind and who stands up for her rights. But the compelling reason that Martha was eventually brought to trial was because she was related to the Toothtaker and that she was not well liked by her neighbours. The witch hysteria in part is propelled by extreme ignorance and fear, the church’s fervent wish to purge the devil totally and that the accusations of vindictive young girls, who appeared to be innocent, and Martha’s enemies, were taken as the undisputable truth. The community of Salam, the magistrates so easily believe in and rely on “spectral evidence” perhaps stemmed from the fact that the sins of witch craft and wizardry are of spiritual nature, hence only flimsy verbal evidence can be relied upon.
If the needle is sharp, it can pierce the coarsest cloth. Ply the needle in and out of a canvas and with a great length of thread one can make a sail to move a ship across the ocean. In such a way can a sharp gossipy tongue, with the thinnest thread of rumour, stitch together a story to flap in the breeze. Hoist that story upon the pillar of superstitious belief and a whole town can be pulled along with the wind of fear.
Martha refusal to confess leads to her demise (I didn’t know a confession of being a witch would spare one from being hanged!), as she believes that “Nothing of greater good comes without struggle and sacrifice in equal measure, be you man or woman, and in this way we freed from Tyranny”. Her husband, Thomas Carrier, despite his size and influence in the society seek not to persuade and deter Martha, knowing that Martha will not be swayed once she decided upon her mind. When Martha is accused of witchcraft, she makes Sarah promise not to stand up for her in court. As Sarah and her brothers are hauled into the prison themselves, the vicious cruelty of the trials becomes apparent. The Carrier family, along with other innocents, are starved, deprived and manacled in prison, battling their way through the hysteria with sheer willpower their mother has taught them.
“How has reading the book changed your opinions about the men and women hanged as witches?” is I thought a silly question. Reading the book had not changed my opinions about men and women hanged as witches, because I believed the innocence were wrongly accused and I abhorred bigotry. A notable hero of my childhood, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. I did not believe all men and women who are hanged as witches are in fact witches to begin with.
“Are there modern day “Witches”? Well, I would say the practice of witch doctor and black magic still exists in this modern day.
Can we, or should we, redefine the meaning of the word “witch”?
Perhaps. We need to redefine the word “witch”, as it is said in the Cambridge dictionary: a woman who is believed to have magical powers and who uses them to harm or help other people. Whilst in Puritan New England, all witches are condemned to death, in the modern days, we accept that there are good witches. An evil witch and malevolent wizard deserve to be punished and burn in hell, but a good witch is an interesting subject matter that could be made into box-office movie! (That is a discussion topic for another day!) 🙂
The ironic is that while a mother was condemned by the truth, the daughter is saved by a lie. Sarah and Tom denounced their own mother and saved themselves from death. This book is a semi-family biography. Kent research is evidenced in quoting the text of the arrest warrant and naming the full names of the accused in death row in the book. Read about Puritan New England and be transported into the world of hard labour, plague, bigotry and attack of the Red Indians in the village of Salem. The underlying theme about this book is about family, courage and love. In Puritan New England, love is expressed in a subtle way, through deeds and actions, thus is the appeal of the story.
About the Writer:
Kathleen Kent is a tenth generation direct descendent of Martha Carrier, and The Heretic’s Daughter is based on true family history. Kathleen has worked in commodity trading and for the US Department of Defense in Russia. She now lives in Dallas with her husband and son. The Herectics Daughter is her first novel. Don’t mind the error in the flap of Pan Macmillan books 2009 edition that says Sarah’s father / Martha’s husband is English. He is in fact, Welsh.