Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Melissa

This is a story about how I eventually came to mostly like this book.

This book and I got off to a rocky start. The letter that opens up the novel just felt so completely wrong, like exactly what someone in the 21st century thinks someone in the 19th century would write. It's so over the top and melodramatic and mea culpa about things that the book will then explain to us very reasonably...I was put off.

Then there was the cover. Look at it. Do we see anything weird about the word 'heretic?" Like, for instance, the inexplicable capitalization of the first three letters? This then meant that every time I thought of the book, it rang in my head as the HER-etic's daughter, weird stress and all, and oh, for goodness sake. It's not anywhere in the book itself, including the title page, but it's SUCH a wrong-headed choice for the cover. As if to suggest that this time, only this time, the heretic is a woman. Except, you know, they often were. 

Next thing wrong with the title is that it's wrong. Sarah's mother isn't a heretic. She's accused of being a witch. These are very different things. The word "heretic" actually means something, and when the book itself explains heretics in the context of their world as Quakers, I kept expecting the mother to be revealed as a secret Quaker. She is not. She is not a heretic. She is accused of being a witch. Do we see how those two things are different? Precision, people. Some words actually have specific meanings.

These are really fairly minor things, but they made me grumpy every time I picked up the book and looked at the cover.

So, this book had an uphill battle when it came to winning me over. So take that for what it's worth when it settles in to be really not a bad look at suspicion and paranoia in a small town near Salem, touched by the witch hysteria in the same way. Kent does a good job of showing how anything could be used as evidence, and how small grudges and small lies could be suddenly blown into huge consequences. 

Sarah, the main character, is a young girl when her mother comes under suspicion, fostered by resentment that her grandmother left property to her instead of other family members. Like her mother, Sarah has a temper, and neither are popular where they move, particularly when they bring smallpox in their wake.

In the end, I enjoyed this book, although I'd never say it reached the level where I'd be running out and telling people to read it. One of the most interesting possibilities was skipped over - stories have been written of the witch trials before, of course. But they all end with someone being hanged, or the fever subsiding and people being released. I'd be interested to see someone write about the third act - what happens after.

When you know your neighbours could turn on you. When your neighbours know they did things unspeakable. How do you live? What do you do? Does it ever go away? Does it fester? While The HERetic's Daughter did the paranoia well, it feels like paths that have been tread before. They're tread well here, but nothing feels particularly new.

In other words, if this is something you like to read about, it's a good entry into that niche. It's just not revolutionary.

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