A GUIDE FOR TEACHERS
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
ABOUT THE NOVEL
In The Heretic’s Daughter, author Kathleen Kent fictionalizes the life of one of the first women hanged as a result of the Salem witch trials—Martha Carrier—and tells the story of her indictment, trial, and execution through the eyes of Martha’s young daughter Sarah.
More than a year before the trials begin, Sarah Carrier and her family arrive in Andover, Massachusetts, to face a community gripped by superstition and fear. With an increase in Indian raids and the spread of the plague, the Puritans come to believe that heretics in their midst are responsible for their misfortune. Based on the accusations of a dozen young girls, neighbor is pitted against neighbor, friend against friend, and the hysteria escalates, sweeping more than two hundred men, women, and children into prison on charges of witchcraft—Sarah’s mother, Martha, among them.
Often at odds with each other, mother and daughter must now stand defiantly together in the face of imprisonment, torture, and even death. Out of love for her children, Martha asks Sarah to commit an act of heresy—a lie that will most surely condemn Martha even as it saves her daughter.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
The Salem witch trials left an indelible mark on the fabric of American history, and the lessons from these events are many and profound, even to this day. The Heretic’s Daughter carries forth these relevant themes, showing the specter of the trials from a young person’s perspective, and offering practically every modern American teenager a topic or idea to which they can relate, whether they’ve been wronged by their peers, felt singled out or ostracized, been pressured to conform to judgments made by others, or have ever been mystified or annoyed by the actions of one of their parents.
The hope is that upon reading this book, students will come away with not only a more personal awareness of this dark period in our nation’s infancy, but a deeper appreciation of what lessons these trials have to offer us in the twenty-first century, and how, as a community, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we don’t make the effort to understand our history.
Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter, is a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier, the mother of the novel’s young protagonist, Sarah. Kent has said that the inspiration for this novel came from the many stories told to her over the years by her mother and grandmother about Martha Carrier, the Carrier family, and what it was like to live in colonial Massachusetts during the seventeenth century. With this background in mind, consider charging your class to conduct a group research project on the Salem witch trials and Martha Carrier’s role in them.
Divide your students into teams and assign each team one of the following tasks:
Write a synopsis of the Salem witch trials, encapsulating the events that led to the hysteria, the charges brought, the events of the trials, and the aftermath of the verdicts and executions.
Create a visual timeline of events, from the first accusations to the last of the executions, including when the trials were finally put to an end.
Determine the key figures of the Salem witch trials and write a “dossier” on each—Abigail Williams, John and Elizabeth Proctor, Tituba, William Stoughton, Cotton Mather, and so on.
Through online research, locate transcripts of one of the Salem witch trials; if possible, locate the transcript of Martha Carrier’s trial.
Attn: Some plot spoilers in these questions.
Author Kathleen Kent, a direct descendant of the real Martha Carrier, says she grew up hearing stories about Carrier and her tribulations from her mother and grandmother. Do you have a long-lost relative whose memory is kept alive in your family in this way?
What were your first impressions of Martha? Did you share Sarah’s antagonism toward her at first? Did your opinion of Martha change as the novel continued?
The author fills the novel with vivid imagery of the dress and customs of seventeenth-century Massachusetts, as well as examples of the many hardships people of that time endured. Do you think you could have lived in that era?
Before reading this book, did you know what a heretic was? Does this term have any relevance today?
“Ah, but you’re only a girl and cannot know the ways of men” (page 5). Talk about the role of women in this society, as depicted in the novel. What was it like to be a girl or woman then?
What do you think the difference is between misunderstanding and prejudice? Between superstition and fear?
Based on the actual events that led to the Salem witch trials, playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in the early 1950s as a reaction to events of the so-called McCarthy era, during which U.S. government agencies and private industry used questionable tactics and unsubstantiated testimony to accuse and investigate people suspected of being communists. Do you think the Salem witch trials hold allegorical meaning in light of more current events? Which events and why?
Rumor and innuendo have enormous influence over the lives of the characters in The Heretic’s Daughter. What are some examples of destructive rumors, as well as beneficial ones? Why did rumor hold so much power then?
Can you name some famous people in history who, in the same way Martha Carrier did, stood up for what they believed while facing dire consequences or even death? What happened as a result of their actions?
What did you think of Sarah’s cousin Margaret? Why did Sarah form such an immediate and intense connection to her?
“I could not imagine the gentle seamstress described by Aunt as the same woman who could see . . . my misdeeds at two hundred paces” (page 44). Why do we view our parents differently from how other people see them? Would you want to know your parents the same way their friends or other family members do?
What was your opinion of Mercy Williams when she was first introduced in Chapter Three? Did you expect she’d be the reason that suspicion was cast on the Carrier family? As Mercy was portrayed at the book’s end, do you think she “got what she deserved”?
Why did the townspeople fear Sarah’s father, Thomas? Why did Martha write down his life story in the red book that she later asked Sarah to hide? What would have happened to the family if that book had been discovered?
The heart of the tragedy in The Heretic’s Daughter is in the rush to judgment made by townspeople against one of their own. Talk about some examples of this. Can you really know a person if you focus only on the surface things about them? Has anyone made assumptions about you without talking to you or getting to know you? How did that make you feel?
If you were Martha Carrier and faced being condemned as a witch, would you have made the decisions she made, including asking your children to lie to save themselves?
How did you feel when Sarah “confessed” in open court? Did you expect she’d do so?
Do you think the townspeople’s mistrust of witches was related in some way to their deep fear of Indians? What was at the heart of their contempt of the former and terror of the latter?
Think of examples of the hardships faced by farmers in 1690s Massachusetts: Did any of these things surprise you or make you think differently about these early settlers?
How would the novel have been different if we heard Martha Carrier’s story directly, instead of its being narrated by her daughter Sarah?
What do you think the main themes of The Heretic’s Daughter are? As readers, what are we supposed to have learned after finishing the book?
ACTIVITIES AND PROJECTS
Compile a list of questions to ask the author about the writing of The Heretic’s Daughter and submit it to her via the book’s website; inquire as to whether she’d be willing or able to address your class, either over the phone or via e-mail.
Research how to write a script for a stage play. Choose one scene from the book and write a script based on it, and include the characters’ dialogue, the stage direction, and descriptions of the scenery. Cast the scene, rehearse, and perform it in class.
What role did your school’s town/village play in any point in American history? Ask your local historical society for information, or invite one of their members to speak to your class.
Conduct a mock trial based on the trials depicted in the book, or on a more modern-day trial of equal significance. Have students assign themselves the roles of the accused, any witnesses, lawyers, the judge, and jury.
In the same way that Sarah Carrier wrote a letter to her granddaughter, write a letter to your future grandchild about a historical event that’s taken place during your lifetime.
The people of seventeenth-century New England lived in fear of contracting smallpox. Research smallpox: What were its symptoms, how was it transmitted, what were its treatments, how was it finally eradicated?
Pick a chapter from the novel and reimagine it as if it were being told from the perspective of a different character.
Declare a “Seventeenth-Century Weekend” and ask students to refrain from using as many modern conveniences as they can over the course of two days. Create a chart in the classroom, and check off which devices or technologies/advancements were avoided, as well as those that weren’t.
Have students research their individual family trees to determine if any are descendants of the first American settlers. What are other ancestral groups of the students?
In colonial times, Americans lived in fear of Indians—now known as Native Americans. Research the history of Native Americans in colonial New England.
SUGGESTED READING AND RESOURCES The Crucible (Penguin Classics Edition), by Arthur Miller, with introduction by Christopher Bigsby.
The Salem Witch Trials Reader (Da Capo Press), by Frances Hill.
The Scarlet Letter (Penguin Classics Edition), by Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Thomas E. Connolly and with an introduction by Nina Baym.
The Crucible (1996 film adaptation), starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, and Joan Allen. DVD, Twentieth Century Fox, rated PG-13.
Salem Witch Trials (2005), History Channel DVD, no rating.
Endorsements for The Heretic’s Daughter:
I do strongly endorse The Heretic's Daughter as an essential part of any school or public library collection. At a personal level, the book addresses family and social conflicts from the narrative of a young girl. At a societal level, it is a compelling story of the witch trials and the destruction the trials brought to many families. While the setting is the late 1600s- early 1700s, the voice is that of a girl from any period, and certainly a voice with which readers of all ages can identify today.
—Amanda Green, Librarian, Paris Public Library, Texas
Kathleen Kent and The Heretic’s Daughter should be welcome guests in literature and history classrooms ( 9th Grade up) across our United States. Ms. Kent is a very talented author and speaker; The Heretic’s Daughter generates emotions and insights, intrigue and drama, all sure to create imaginative discussions in classrooms and book clubs in every section of our country.
—Margaret Butler, Sixth Grade Literature, St. John’s Episcopal School, Dallas, Texas
Kathleen Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter satisfies all my strongest literary cravings. This is history, drama, family dynamics, and a great read! Her book takes the reader on a journey through a sad and shameful period of American Colonial history. Kent further explores the universal problem of young people who must grapple with peer pressure and shoulder family responsibilities far beyond their years. I recommend it highly for both adults and young adults.
—Marge Stockton, Dallas Public Library Genealogical Society, Texas
Kathleen Kent absolutely captivated our middle and high school students as she shared details about her book, The Heretic’s Daughter. As Kathleen shared on stage, one 8th grader experienced, for a very short time, one of
the torture treatments used on those people accused of heresy. The whole book captured the dialect of the time period and gave accurate details due to her extensive research while preparing to write the book.
—Margaret Simmons, Librarian, June Shelton School, Dallas, Texas
This very moving book is a tale which brings a message, which is as relevant today as the time in which the story takes place. As an educator, I see our students have more models of cruel and unkind behavior everyday. At Shelton School we do have the Rachel's Challenge program, which is attempting to help us influence the considerate behavior we would like to see in each student. The Heretic's Daughter was a perfect story to reference in our study this year. The suffering and pain of a young person in another time period was palpable for students in 2009.
—Joyce S. Pickering, Shelton School & Evaluation Center