Kathleen Kent: “The Heretic’s Daughter”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Those who know me or know my work understand that I am compelled by family histories. I especially love it when contemporary writers delve into their family pasts to unearth secret stories and bring those hidden stories to life for modern readers. Think Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warriorone of my key inspirations when I wrote Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. I am always on the lookout for similar projects.

Imagine my delight, then, when I met author Kathleen Kent. We’d both just flown into Lexington, Kentucky, and had been picked up by the executive director of the Kentucky Book Fair, being held in nearby Frankfort, the state capital. Kathleen and I struck up what became a very animated conversation as we discovered that we were both promoting books relating to our families’ histories.

My book is about a decidedly obscure family – a poor, rural, hardscrabble family of Cherokee descent. My goal in writing Power in the Blood was to shine a light on the invisible past, to give voice to the voiceless.

But Kathleen’s family was famous – or perhaps, in some circles, infamous. For Kathleen is a tenth-generation direct descendant of Martha Carrier, arguably the most well-known of the people hung in 1692 in the village of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Carrier – like 19 other women and men – was falsely accused of witchcraft and executed as a result. She was hanged on August 19, 1692, the same day John Proctor was hung. Proctor became the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible. (Stay tuned: next week I’ll discuss John Proctor and The Crucible.)

Long intrigued by this family legacy, Kathleen set out to write Martha’s tale and to show the impact of this heinous period in American history on the Carrier family.

So far, so good. I had met a writer whose work was simpatico with my own. But would the resulting novel – The Heretic’s Daughter – be any good? I am happy to answer with a resounding and unequivocal “YES!”

In The Heretic’s Daughter, her debut novel, Kathleen Kent reveals herself as a first-rate storyteller. She breathes life into the historical figure of Martha Carrier and the entire Carrier family, including her daughter Sarah from whose vantage point the story is told. Kathleen makes us care deeply about this Puritan family and the woman who was so wronged by the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s “justice” system.

Kathleen explains that she was raised hearing the story of her courageous ancestor:

I was told about the 19 men and women hanged, who went to their deaths rather than confess and live. And about how my great-grandmother, back nine generations, not only professed her innocence, but harshly admonished her judges not to listen to “these girls who are out of their wits.” It was my mother who first told me that Cotton Mather, one of the greatest theologians of his days, named Martha Carrier “The Queen of Hell,” not for her evil character, but because of her bold and assertive manner. . . . As my grandmother was fond of saying, with not a little pride, “Martha was not a witch. Merely a ferocious woman!”

To learn more about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, visit the University of Virginia’s comprehensive Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. The website tells us that at least twenty-five people died as a result of the trials: nineteen were executed by hanging, one was tortured to death by being “pressed” with large stones, and at least five died in jail due to harsh conditions. In all, “over 160 people were accused of witchcraft, most were jailed, and many deprived of property and legal rights.” Those accused lived in the town of Salem, in Salem Village (now Danvers), and in Andover, where Martha Carrier and her family lived. Kathleen’s website also provides a good (and brief) overview of the Salem Witch Trials (click on “Salem History”).

You can learn more about Kathleen Kent and her first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, at the book’s official website. You can explore the Carrier family tree and learn about the Carrier family reunion Kathleen helped to organize in 2010. You can also listen to an audio interview with Kathleen, in which she explains the research she conducted as she wrote the novel, including spending time in Salem and surrounding areas. A New York Times book review of The Heretic’s Daughter provides a good introduction to the novel, as does the review in The Guardian, which calls the book “an exceptionally accomplished debut novel.” Best of all, you can read the first chapter online for free and listen to an audio excerpt from the novel.

And if you fall in love with The Heretic’s Daughter (as I know you will!), you can read more of Kathleen’s work. Of special note is another historical novel, The Traitor’s Wifea prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter. It tells the story of Thomas and Martha Carrier in the years before the Salem Witch Trials.

Next week, I’ll continue this exploration of the Salem Witch Trials with a look at Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

Watch:Watch as Kathleen Kent reads a short excerpt from The Heretic’s Daughter and talks about the family legacy of her ninth great-grandmother, Martha Carrier.

Image Credit: Kathleen Kent, used with her permission.