Incantation, by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman has written a number of books for both adults and young adults; three of said novels (Practical MagicAquamarine, and The River King) have been made into movies, starring some rather impressive actors. Born in New York, she attended Adelphi College and later Stanford, getting degrees in creative writing, and in 1983 she wrote the screenplay to a movie entitled “Independence Day,” but not the one with Will Smith and aliens. She currently lives in New York and Boston. Previously on Someone’s Read it Already, I reviewed a novel of hers, The Foretelling.

Estrella de Madrigal is a young woman in sixteenth-century, small-town Spain; her best friend is Catalina, who lives nearby. The girls are very close to each other until Estrella pays a little too much attention to Andres, Catalina’s cousin whom she is intended to marry. Unfortunately, this sets off a streak of jealousy and vindictiveness in Catalina. The town, Encaleflora, is undergoing some awful changes; it’s the time of the Inquisition (although they don’t call it that) and all the Jews and Muslims in town are suspect, even the ones who converted years and years ago. Estrella’s family behaves strangely — is it possible that they are secretly Jewish? And how will they survive?

This is not a happy book. The Inquisition rarely made people happy (that’s an intentional understatement, by the way), and being that our main character and her family are, in fact, secretly Jewish (it says so on the back of the book; this is not a spoiler), it’s obvious that there can be no purely happy ending. Early on, we see a non-secret Jew have all his books burned — religious treaties and medical volumes, mostly — in a public ceremony, of sorts. Later on, we see the dreadful treatment of the Muslims, who live in a cordoned-off section of town, and then, finally, we see the actual results of a trial for heresy on account of being a secret Jew. Obviously we don’t see much of the questioning, torture, and death, but we do see the motivation behind the accusers, which is mostly the 50/50 division of the accused/convicted (same thing) family’s belongings between the accuser and the state.

That having been said, there are some moments of absolute joy and clarity in the story. Andres and Estrella have a lovely relationship. There is a Muslim doctor’s wife who knows of Estrella’s mother’s predilection for the color blue, and the doctor’s wife sends Estrella’s mother some hens that lay blue eggs (and the associated rooster). Eventually Estrella and her grandfather — a surgeon and teacher — come to an understanding, and it is also lovely. Many of the interpersonal relationships in the de Madrigal family are strong and loving, and even despite the horror that is surrounding them, they find the ability to keep their faith strong.

Ms. Hoffman states in the Q & A at the end that she wrote the book as a way to consider many of the issues facing America today, and I can see the obvious parallels between the ‘terrorist hunting’ and the way that the Jews were treated. She also feels that teenagers are certainly old enough to handle thinking about this topic and all the implications, and I certainly agree. Although the book is only 166 pages long, it’s probably best read by those in sixth grade or older, due to the violence. I also feel it’s very important for young readers to realize that what they are reading is a parallel of the current times, and I’m glad that the Q & A and reading-group guides are included. 4.5/5 stars.

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