Kathleen Kent's book "The Heretic's Daughter" is set during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. She envisions the story of her ancestor Martha Carrier who was called "The Queen of Hell" by the Rev. Cotton Mather. To confess and name other witches allowed some mercy from the court. Of the 200 men and women arrested for witchcraft, Martha was the only person who would not perjure herself by confessing falsely to being a witch.
The Carrier family were free-thinkers, something that Puritan society held in suspicion. Thomas is a huge man of silent strength who inspires fear in his neighbors. Rumor has it that he was a murderer in old England when he served Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader that took over the government, resulting in the death of Charles I.
Martha is a distant and stern mother with a backbone of steel and a literal iron rod. She has three boys and two daughters. The middle child Sarah feels alienated from her family, especially after a sojourn with her cousin and her story-telling father and gentler mother. The novel is told through Sarah's eyes.
The Carriers have come to Andover to live with Martha's mother, not knowing they have also brought smallpox. Thirteen people die. After Grandma's death Thomas and Martha stay on the farm, which causes trouble with Martha's sister's family who had believed they should inherit the property.
Martha's surety and aloofness makes her no friends. Petty squabbles arise and community conflict escalates. Meanwhile in Salem young girls have been naming women as witches...and the Andover girls decide to join the movement. It becomes a way to get even with Martha and Sarah.
Martha is arrested for witchcraft, plunging the family into turmoil and disorder. One by one the children are also taken into custody as witches.
Kent spent five years researching this novel. The descriptions of home and prison life are detailed, and often disturbing. Their life is harsh, enduring the brutal winter cold and scathing summer heat. The boys take up the yoke to pull the plow. Cleanliness is a luxury. The fear of an Indian attack is always with them.
The suffering of the imprisoned women, whose family must provide their food and even pay for the manacles they are bound with, is exquisitely painful to read. A four year old child is jailed along with her mother, and left in jail after her mother's execution....because her father could not pay to have his daughter released.
The novel made me think about how groups will gather and attack those who don't fit in, who are different, who don't conform to the norm, who think freely. But also how one or two people can influence a way of thinking that escalates into a movement, for good or for bad.
I myself have seen modern day witch hunting in action. The gathering of a group of like-minded people reinforcing their shared beliefs, justifying their actions. The targeting of the person or persons believed to be a threat. The vicious attacks, the rumor mongering, the campaigning for others to join them. That scene in Disney's Beauty and the Beast where Gaston leads the villagers to attack the Beast, selling a vision of the threat the Beast posses, well, it happens outside of cartoons.
We know that McCarthyism was a 20th c. witch hunt. The pressure to name names is right out of old Salem. The passivity of bystanders during Hitler's rise to a power based on racial superiority and genocide is viewed today as remarkable. The Civil Rights movement was met with hatred and prejudice and fear. The Suffragettes were mocked, jailed, and abused because they asked for voting rights. All around the world tribal warfare, genocide, and repression occur.
Civilization is a process that does not follow a straight line. Human enlightenment is not a march as much as a dance that circles back before moving forward. What witch hunts are we willing to join today?