Review: The Minister's Daughter by Julie Hearn
Monday, February 7, 2011
Book: The Minister's Daughter
Author: Julie Hearn
Release date: May 17, 2005
Source: Borrowed from local library
Summary: (from Goodreads) In 1645 in England, the daughters of the town minister successfully accuse a local healer and her granddaughter of witchcraft to conceal an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but years later during the 1692 Salem trials their lie has unexpected repercussions.
First impressions: The book introduces us to two different perspectives from the start: one is the young Nell, granddaughter to a local healer, in 1645 England; the other is Patience, younger sister to Grace, daughter of the town minister, who writes her own account of the events from 1692 Salem. I liked this alternating style, which added a level of deception and spite to the unfolding accusations of witchcraft.
I was also immediately taken with the voices of the girl Nell and the woman Patience. Hearn does a great job of establishing the stubborn ignorance of Nell, and the woeful remorse of Patience. These contrasting views only add to the heartbreak we know is coming.
Lasting impressions: I was quite taken by surprise with the amount of magical wonder throughout the book. The townspeople are new to the Puritanical religion, and are hesitant to completely disregard the paganism that has been a large part of their lives. Hearn takes this belief and spins it as truth, with the characters interacting with fairies and little creatures called "piskies." It is fanciful and yet confusing. Are we readers to believe these creatures exist? Or are these the imaginings of a simple people who are not able to make sense of the world around them? I'm not sure what the intent was, but it was still delightful to read.
Negative impressions: That said, some of the longer scenes with the fairies and piskies didn't feel like they belonged in this tale. The shorter sightings and interactions were much more effective for me. Though Nell goes through a long sequence to obtain an item that becomes incredibly important later in the book, while I was reading it I couldn't figure out the point of that scene and it frustrated me as a reader.
Overall impressions: This is the kind of story that resonates with me. The "witchcraft" that so many women were said to practice in the 1600s was typically nothing more than pagan ritual, and oftentimes accusations flew to draw attention away from themselves or to act out against the repressive male hierarchy. The mass hysteria that fuels this hunt for wrongdoing and scapegoats turns my stomach, and insults my sense of justice in the world, so I was quite taken with the subject matter.
Here, a minister's daughter discovers she is pregnant, is rebuffed by her lover, and decides to start acting possessed as a way to cover her tracks. Nell despises the haughty attitude of Grace, and refuses to give her an abortifacient when she realizes that the baby may be a "merrybegot" like herself - a sacred child of nature. So begins the quest for revenge, with Grace providing more and more nails in Nell's withcraft coffin, and poor Nell unable to see how her pagan rituals are only adding fuel to the fire.
These events are also told retrospectively by Patience, Grace's sister, who is in the midst of her own witchcraft trial in Salem some 40 years later. By her admittance that Grace is only pretending, we can only read on in horror as Nell and her grandmother are persecuted by their peers. It is a quickly moving tale with depth of feeling and carefully layered expositions into the actions of the main players. We soon realize that Grace and Patience's father, the minister, may be more complicit than first assumed, and that other characters may not care whether or not Nell is actually innocent.
I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in the witch hunts. Although the primary narrative is not concerned with the trial, it is a fascinating study of how these types of charges were set up and delivered with the kind of one-two punch that can only result in a knockout. These women had no chance to refute the charges against them, completely oblivious to the danger approaching as they went about their daily lives. The book also speaks to the benefits of doing what is right no matter the cost, as you never know when your actions may come back to help or haunt you.
Rating: 4/5 stars