Kent has crafted an outstanding novel of the troublesome history of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. When the Carrier family moves to Andover to live with Sarah Carrier Chapman’s elderly grandmother, they do not realize that, even now, one of them is carrying smallpox. In an era of fear and superstition, when villages are plagued by disease, Indian attacks and hostile winters, very little is needed to arouse the ire and suspicion of neighbors.
Sarah’s mother, Martha, is an independent woman who eschews the petty worries of her neighbors, taking pride in her family and their endeavors. But while the Carriers are busy with their crops and domestic concerns, the news of worrisome activities in Salem begin to filter through to Andover, tales of witchcraft and girls who have been possessed, naming their tormentors as agents of the devil.
The times are precarious: Indian raids are common, terrifying families; disease rampant; the winter particularly harsh. Fear and superstition are everywhere, infecting the community with the same hysteria and finger-pointing of guilt. Having a difficult relationship with her mother, Sarah has long resented the lack of warmth between them, but when the fateful words, “Martha’s a witch,” are whispered, the family is struck dumb with fear for Martha’s future.
Sarah sheds her childhood, watching her mother arrested and jailed as a witch: “It was the ending of the passage of the dark fog of infancy to the sharp remembrance of childhood.” But before she goes to her imprisonment, Martha confides in her young daughter, forcing the girl to promise the only action that will save the family from the same fate Martha must endure. Eventually the whole town turns one upon another, the jail filled with the hollowed faces of the accused, including all of the Carrier children, who must do their mother’s bidding to save themselves.
Kent beautifully portrays Sarah’s suffering, her rage at the helplessness of her situation and the anguish at losing the mother she has only begun to understand. The fraught relationship of a mother and daughter, normally maturing over time, is truncated by the hysteria of the young women in Salem, whose reach exceeds the confines of their town, and the pitiless energies of a panel of men suddenly empowered with life and death over those who stand accused before them. The fear is pervasive, as is the greed of neighbors who covet the lands of others and seek excuses to take what is not theirs.
Written in Sarah’s voice (the author is a descendant of Sarah Carrier Chapman), this troubling account brings to life the shameful era of the Salem witch trials and the innocent victims left in its wake. Charged with Christian compassion, the villagers, in thrall to suspicion and fear, have none, turning on friends and neighbors with impunity. It is the outraged voice of a child that calls through the years, delivering a powerful testimony: “I am my mother’s daughter, too.”