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Original Essays

A Witch's Tale through 10 Generations

by Kathleen Kent
  1. The Heretic
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Heretic's Daughter

    Kathleen Kent
    "Sarah's front-row view of the trials and the mayhem that sweeps the close-knit community provides a fresh, bracing and unconventional take on a much-covered episode." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
I'll never forget the moment I discovered that the stories my mother and grandmother had been telling me about an ancestor who had been hanged for being a witch were true. I first heard about Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be tried and hanged in Salem in 1692, when I was a child of about eight or nine. I grew up with stories of my mother's family, the Carriers, and their involvement in the witch hysteria: the trials, the imprisonment, and, in Martha's case, the hanging.

When I was a teenager, I went to the high-school library and picked out a book on the history of Massachusetts. There in the index was the name "Martha Carrier." I turned to the page indicated, and there, in black and white, was the name of my ancestor and the story of her remarkable and courageous life. I remember the breathless feeling of being part of that notorious history and eventually came to an understanding of the pride, and at times gleefulness, that my mother felt in having an accused witch in the family.

Of course, as my grandmother Carrier used to say, Martha was not a witch, merely "a ferocious woman." She was perhaps the only woman during the Salem witch trials who not only professed her innocence, but who also confronted her judges and accusers — actions that were very much contrary to what was proper in a Puritan woman living in New England in the 17th century. Her behavior earned her the name "The Queen of Hell" by Cotton Mather, one of the famous theologians of his day. Her words were captured verbatim in the trial records, and reading her court transcripts was both heartbreaking and exhilarating.

Some of the Carrier legends that accompanied the recounting of the trials had nothing to do with witches, covens, or consorting with the Devil. They were more rustic accounts of their day-to-day life. Like the tales of the family cow that was fed pumpkins to give golden milk, or of Martha's husband, Thomas, who lived to be 109 years of age, was over seven feet tall, and who fought for Cromwell, ultimately serving the Protectorate by becoming the executioner of King Charles I of England.

I thought for many years of writing the book that eventually became The Heretic's Daughter, but as I was working full time in various commercial fields and traveling extensively, I didn't have the time I knew was needed to research the story adequately.

In 2000 I quit my job and moved with my husband and son to Dallas, Texas, and began almost immediately. I had never before published so much as a short story, and I understood that for the novel to have an authentic feel, the research would need to be exhaustive. I spent five years reading every bit of history I could, including sermons by leading theologians of the time and contemporary letters from laymen and government officials, trying to capture the rhythm and cadence of archaic English. I traveled to Massachusetts and Connecticut, visiting existing buildings from the 1600s, cemeteries, and even senior citizen centers to speak with men and women old enough, and energetic enough, to remember the local lore. I spent hours with historical societies and in genealogical libraries.

Into this history I wove all of the stories I could remember from my childhood, giving the characters a depth I felt their memory deserved. And even though the novel's back story is the gripping, and at times horrendous, account of the Salem witch trials, it is at heart a recounting of the bravery and sacrifice of one family. The Heretic's Daughter is a love story to my ancestors and a tribute to my grandmother, back nine generations, who went defiantly to her death rather than embrace a lie.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kathleen Kent lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son. She is a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier, and The Heretic's Daughter is her first novel. spacer

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