Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review of "The Heretic's Daughter" by Kathleen Kent

Sometimes I'm a real woos when it comes to reading subject matter that makes me angry, upset or uncomfortable.  I'm not as bad as Joey on Friends since I don't have to put the book in the freezer but I do have to put it down and walk away.  This book made me angry at people and their willingness to believe anything to get the answer they want.  It was set before and during the Salem Witch Trials and is told from the point of view of Sarah, daughter to Martha who is on trial for witchcraft.  You get to see the family about a year before the trials start and get glimpses as to why the mother is hauled in on suspicion of being a witch.  And here's a shocker: Martha was a strong woman.  She wouldn't let men bully her and she didn't kowtow to others standards of behavior.

Several times I had to put this book down and walk away because the rampant stupidity exhibited by this culture and it's fear based ruling system made me angry.  When studying colonial literature in college I remember reading Cotton Mathers and thinking that his teachings were nothing but a way to control the people in his church.  He used their fear of hell and damnation as an effective means to passively coerce them into acting how he wanted them to act.  He's mentioned several times in the book where the church leadership looks to him for guidance.  The book is based on facts surrounding the life of the author's ancestor so it's not hard to believe that Mathers wouldn't be involved.  We know he was - dirty bastard. Sorry, I digress. 

Many elements of this story made me angry, not just Mathers' inclusion.  Number one on my list is the fact that a bunch of grown men were duped by a group of ignorant teenage girls.  They also understood the power of using other people's fears to their advantage and used it to accuse anybody they had a grudge against of witchcraft.  Kent describes a scene in the courtroom when Martha is before the judges and the accusers were screaming because she was sending her spirit out of her body to torment them at that very moment.  Looking back 400 years with the perspective we have now it's hard to believe an entire community would put stock into what a small group of teenage girls said when it was sending their loved ones to jail and the gallows.

Second is the treatment of children.  As heartbreaking as it is to hear about these atrocities being carried out against adults it was even more gut wrenching to think that people had no qualms about imprisoning small children.  I realize that children these days are more revered by far than their counter parts so many centuries ago but it's still hard to imagine that people had such little compassion that there wasn't any hesitation to throw them in a filthy jail in hopes of getting a confession against their parents. 

For all the scenarios that made me angry, however, it really was a great read.  Any book that incites such a strong emotional reaction usually gets my thumbs up; the writer was able to effectively used their language to get me where they wanted.  It's ironic, however, that the same methods were used by the Puritans in their pulpits to start the witch trials in the first place.

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