Of all the books I've read about the Salem Witch Trials, both fiction and non, this one is perhaps the most poignant I've seen to date, as the author has a unique personal perspective in one of the most tragic episodes in American history. The most unique feature of this book was that it was written by a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier, the mother of the protagonist, daughter Sarah Carrier, the second-to-youngest member of the prominent family, which was residing at the time in nearby Andover, not Salem itself.
This is a deeply historical novel, as much of the family's history portrayed in the novel is actually drawn from life. The family apparently did undergo some internal strife as depicted, when Martha, after nursing her father and two brothers during a smallpox epidemic in 1690, who did not survive, inherited their property, which apparently became a bone of contention between Martha and her sister's family. Martha's husband and four of her children also apparently contracted the disease, but he and two of the children (she had apparently had eight in all) survived.
Perhaps due at least in part to the family's notoriety (they had been accused of bringing the disease to the town, which in all likelihood was not actually true), during the Salem Witch Trials, Martha was accused, along with her sister Mary and brother-in-law Roger, both of whom feature prominently in the novel, along with their eldest daughter, Margaret, whom Sarah is depicted as very close to in the fictional account. Martha was actually the first accused person from Andover, apparently initially by her neighbor, with whom she had quarreled, and after he had fallen ill, he blamed her for causing it, possibly harkening back to the blame her family had incurred during the smallpox epidemic years earlier. In any event, Martha was arrested and brought before the court in Salem village, where the screaming cabal of girls likewise accused her, sealing her fate.
As depicted in the novel, Martha refused to confess to something she was obviously innocent of, and accused the girls, in turn, of madness, asserting her belief that the trials were a ridiculous sham, cooked up by a group of marginalized adolescents who just wanted attention. Martha also rightly accused the court itself, presided over by the likes of fanatic Cotton Mather, of complicity in the fiasco. Martha, not surprisingly, for challenging their authority, if nothing else, was convicted of witchcraft, along with five others - one woman and four men - and was sentenced to death in August, 1692. The sentence was eventually carried out on August 19th of that year.
After her conviction, however, a strange happening occurred: Martha's own family apparently turned on her, for reasons still unknown. The fictional account theorizes that Martha told her family to tell the judges whatever they wanted to hear to save their own lives, with the result that she forfeit her own. On July 21, a warrant was issued for two of the Carrier boys, Richard and Andrew, the latter of which is depicted in the novel as being either mentally ill or severely cognitively disabled by the smallpox infection he had survived. After being examined, the two teenage boys, at first denying any knowledge or involvement, apparently reconsidered their situation after being subjected to the girls' theatrics in the court. Richard then reportedly confessed, and even accused his mother, his aunt Mary and several other prominent persons in Salem, including Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor, recounting some elaborate and obviously fabricated accounts of seeing these various accused persons flying to witches' sabbaths. His brother apparently shortly thereafter joined suit.
There is even surviving documentary evidence which reveals why they apparently had a sudden change of heart. On account of the boys' confessions of the obviously ridiculous type, John Proctor the following day sent a letter from jail to Boston, whereby he accused the court of using torture to extract false confessions from children, specifically mentioning the two boys. He stated that "they tied them neck and heel 'till the blood was ready to come out of their noses...this was the occasion of making them confess that they never did, by reason they said one had been a witch a month, another five weeks, and that their mother had made them so, who has been confined here this nine weeks."
Margaret, Mary's daughter, also apparently accused her aunt Martha of witchcraft, but later recanted. Mary likewise confessed, however, accusing both her sister and nephew Richard. The lack of familial loyalty, so prominent among other families, like the Nurses - a family member was even accused herself on account of her unwavering support - is shocking. Stress under pressure obviously caused the fractured relationships between the two siblings and their families to strain to the breaking point. The strife between the two families is on full display in the testimony of Allen, Martha's nephew, Mary's son, who stated that he had had a fight with his cousin Richard, during which his aunt's "spectre" had held him down, making him unable to fight, and that a wound he had received in the war miraculously healed after she was arrested.
After Martha's conviction, her ten-year-old son, Thomas Jr. was arrested, and, after suffering during interrogation likewise confessed to witchcraft and affirmed that it was his mother who had instructed him on how to torment the Salem girls and others. He likewise attested to flying to witches' Sabbaths on sticks where he had been baptized in the river. The novel's protagonist, Sarah was actually reportedly about eight or nine years old at the time. She likewise confessed to witchcraft, and, like her brother, stated that her mother had likewise instructed her in the dark arts, forcing her to sign her name in a red book, and had also baptized her.
Objections fell on deaf ears. The powers that be in Boston apparently didn't want to get involved in local town happenings, at least at that juncture. Brave Martha went to her death proclaiming her innocence, reportedly stating that she refused to concede to "a falsehood so filthy," even to save her own life, as many others had. After she was killed, her body was dumped in a shallow grave near where the gallows stood, where several other victims, including George Burroughs and John Willard, had also been left. No one knows what became of them: the victims were not allowed to be buried in a churchyard; some may have been retrieved by their next of kin, but others' bodies may well have just been left to rot in a two-foot-deep crevice between the rocks at the execution site.
Unfortunately, Martha's killers were never held to account for the murders they themselves had perpetrated, nor were the direct accusers who had essentially caused all the deaths. In 1711, the family petitioned for and received only a small amount as restitution from the Massachusetts government - about 7 pounds. The government, but not the figures directly involved in sending twenty innocent persons to their deaths, apologized to Thomas Carrier and his family.
Despite their confessions, Thomas and the children survived their ordeals, which included imprisonment, where many victims died due to the terrible living conditions before they could face the hangman. This is one of the most moving aspects of the fictional novel, which probably didn't stray too far from the truth. The author here depicts in harrowing and heartbreaking detail what it was like to have experienced imprisonment in conditions which must have ranked among some of the worst in history. The scenes where the children bid their starving mother farewell as she is taken from the cells to the gallows are heartrending, as are the depictions of what it must have been like to have fallen ill in the cells. Indeed, as described, the conditions these innocents were subjected to during long months in prison meant that to some, the gallows may have been a welcome release.
After their release from prison, Thomas apparently moved to Colchester, Connecticut, with the children, around 1700. He reportedly died in May, 1736, which would have made him 109 years old! If you want to visit the Carrier family home, it was located on High Street, about 2000 feet before the Tewsbury border, in what is now Billerica. Martha's legacy also lives on, primarily for her courage in refusing to legitimize the sham trials with a false confession, even at the cost of her life.
The novel is somewhat slow, especially at the beginning, but if you read other books about this period which are thin on description, it's a good account of both daily life and the inner workings of an actual family who lived during this tragic episode, including some of the familial strife, both internal and external, which played out center stage during the trials, as a significant amount of turmoil stemmed from disputes between the villagers, some of which had persisted for generations. It's written somewhat in retrospect, as Sarah was a young child at the time the events actually occurred, but follows her through old age. This book is definitely worth reading, and is an admirable testament to her and her descendants, true survivors of this infamous tragedy.