Martha Carrier was one of the nineteen people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials. She was also (born Martha Ingalls Allen) the first cousin seven times removed of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is apparently mentioned in Prairie Fires … which I might finally buy now that it’s down to £7.99 on Amazon. And she was a direct ancestor of Kathleen Kent, the author of this book, who’s focused her writing on the effect of the trials on the families of the accused. The Salem Witch Trials have been called the rock upon which theocracy in America was shattered (some people could possibly do with reminding about this). But they also shattered the lives of the twenty people (one, an elderly man, was crushed to death for refusing to plead) who were killed, the many others who were also accused, and their families and friends.
The book’s told from the viewpoint of Martha’s daughter Sarah – who was also imprisoned, and forced to testify against her own mother – looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences. Sarah was actually only 7 at the time of the trials, but, for the purposes of the story, has been shown as being a few years older than that. Kathleen Kent hasn’t tried to eulogise her ancestors in any way: none of them actually come across as being particularly pleasant, and the book shows that Sarah only really came to appreciate her parents at the time of the trials, when she saw her mother’s great courage and her father’s love and loyalty; but I don’t think anyone could have been all sweetness and light in the harsh conditions of late 17th century Massachusetts (the family lived in Andover, near Salem). And the reader might not like the characters, but they’ll come to admire them – especially Martha, who refused to try to save herself by pleading guilty to witchcraft, but urged her children to say whatever would save their own lives.
It’s very hard to try to make sense of what happened. Witch hunts often happened when someone had fallen ill, or livestock had died, and crops had failed, and people were looking for someone to blame, and or an excuse to take revenge on someone they had a grudge against. But, in the Salem area, the accusations started after some young girls in the area started having fits. What caused that? Was it mass hysteria? It’s difficult to try to understand, but it does happen. The film “The Falling” is based on an episode of mass hysteria in Blackburn in 1965, and that’s just one example of many. It’s also been suggested that some sort of hallucinogenic fungus might have got into the food supply. No-one really knows.
And the book doesn’t really focus on that – it focuses more on the way in which bad feeling could spread in a small community, and the interaction between that and the mood of the religious or political authorities – pretty much the same thing, in Salem in 1692. The Carriers had never been popular, having been blamed for a smallpox epidemic which affected the area. They’d also fallen out with family members over an inheritance dispute, a neighbour in an argument over a trespassing cow, and a former servant whom they’d dismissed for misconduct. Being unpopular anyway, they were vulnerable to accusation at a time when hysteria was spreading through the area and allegations were flying about right, left and centre.
And how it all spiralled! Over 200 people were accused. Sarah and many other children were amongst those imprisoned. The book chillingly and brilliantly describes what the conditions in the prisons must have been like – and shows how, even under those conditions, women like Martha tried desperately to preserve their dignity by keeping as clean as they could. It also shows the struggles of the rest of the Carrier family – and there’s a strange sub-plot in which it turns out that Martha’s husband, Thomas Carrier, was the man who executed Charles I. I don’t know whether that’s a legend in Kathleen Kent’s family or whether it’s something she came up with for the sake of the book. Thomas and his children eventually got an apology and compensation for the execution of Martha. Much good that would have done them.
The book does focus entirely on the times. Whereas The Crucible famously drew parallels between the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism, Kathleen Kent has written a true historical novel, about historical events, with no attempt to make veiled comments about modern-day attitudes. I like that. History teaches us many lessons which are relevant to the present day – the dangers of religious extremism, especially given the issues with Christian fundamentalism in the US, are particularly relevant to our own times – but it’s incredibly annoying when people only use history to make a point about modern-day events. I don’t particularly like the word “weaponise” because it’s an artificial word, but there is a tendency for people to “weaponise” history, and Kathleen Kent’s avoided that. Oh, and she never mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the publicity it would have brought her, which is also admirable. It’s not an enjoyable book as such, and it’s not something that you’ll want to read over and over again, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad that I’ve read it.