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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Young-adult novel set during the Inquisition

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In The Last Song (Tundra Books), Eva Wiseman’s latest novel for young adults, the reader is taken to mid-15th century Spain at the height of the Inquisition.

Isabel is a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of the physician to Queen Isabella.

She arrives home one day to find out her parents want her to meet a prominent Spaniard man, Alfonso, and his son, Luis, whom they want her to marry.

Isabel is horrified. She was always told she’d be allowed to pick her husband and wasn’t expecting to be engaged for at least another year. In addition, we learn that Luis is rude, dismissive and cruel “with roving hands.”

Isabel begs, cajoles and rages, but her father remains deaf to her pleas. “There is no doubt about his lineage,” her father says mysteriously.

The Hungarian-born author, who now lives in Winnipeg, is very economical with her words, and it doesn’t take her long to get to the crux (pun intended) of her story.

Right within the first few pages, just after Isabel gets her palm read predicting “unhappiness and hard times,” as she is walking home through the crowded market square, the Grand Inquisitor himself leads a procession through the crowd.

Wiseman describes this scene vividly. Torquemeda is followed by four solemnly chanting monks holding crucifixes and then by a long row of dirty prisoners. First a group of women dressed in ragged yellow sackcloth tunics – sambenitos. Then another group of women, these in black sambenitos with tall mitres on their heads.

Behind them were men also dressed in yellow or black sambenitos.

As they walked along, people yelled insults and threw animal blood and other rubbish at them.

Isabel is horrified by the scene in front of her and feels sorry for the victims. But her slave, Sophia, admonishes her, telling her that these people were Marranos, Conversos who practiced Judaism in secret and deserved to be punished.

The stage is thus set. When we learn in the first chapter that her mother never cooks pork or that Isabel has to take her bath on Fridays before sundown, the reader should not be too surprised with the big revelation in the third chapter, especially after she overhears Luis’ slave telling Sophia that the “Inquisition will come for your mistress one day.”

After her engagement party, her parents reluctantly explain that their parents were Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, but they still practise the old ways in secret.  “In our hearts we are still Jewish.”

Isabel, who goes to church and prays as much as any devout Christian, is horrified that she belongs to an accursed, greedy race, such “loathsome creatures” who are forced to wear special badges to identify them in public.

Just 14, she is betrothed to a boy she detests and doomed to burn in hell for all eternity. And teenagers today think they have issues.

Wiseman, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Kanada and the winner of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction, does a decent job of intro.ducing young readers to the tumultuous world of 15th-century Spain. She describes the auto-de-fés, the public burning of heretics, and touches on important historical events such as the Expulsion and the Reconquista.

The fast pace of the narrative is excellent, advancing the plot rapidly with no digression.

But it’s not without some clichés. Isabel’s fiancé, Luis, is somewhat of a caricature of a villain.

Most characters are either black or white, either very good or downright evil. While the character of Isabel is well written as a confused teenager, praying to the Virgin on one hand, while learning Torah on the other, there is otherwise little depth and readers may not easily identify with her.

But despite these minor flaws, there is much to recommend. Teenagers will learn a lot about this period in history from The Last Song, and learn that the Holocaust was not an isolated event and had its roots in centuries of European antisemitism.


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