Personal identity is a curious thing. Some people see themselves in light of their nationality, ethnic group, or religious affiliation. Others base who they think they are on economic factors, such as their professions or the amount of money their parents had. Still others base their self-image on highly subjective factors such as how others see them, educational level, or athletic ability. Although personal identity can change over time, usually the alterations are gradual and tend to mainly complement the core image we developed for ourselves as children.
What happens to people, though, when they suddenly discover that they are not who they think they are, that their carefully constructed identity, fostered by their own beliefs and reinforced by family and friends over the years, is actually a lie? Such is the dilemma of Estrella deMadrigal, a 16-year-old girl living in 16th-century Spain, in Incantation, Alice Hoffman’s haunting tale of self-discovery and religious persecution.
Encaleflora is a tiny village in the Aragon region of Spain where Estrella’s family has lived for over five hundred years. It is in this “beautiful city in the most beautiful countryside in all of Aragon” that Estrella has grown up alongside her best friend Catalina. The two girls’ jet-black hair resulted in their respective pet names of “Raven” and “Crow.” Only a week apart in birth, the two are almost inseparable and even dream of living next door to each other after they get married. Neither one could foresee how the day of burning would change their lives and friendship forever.
Catalina bursts into Estrella’s yard on this day to drag her to the plaza where the girls often draw water for their families. But on this occasion they’re greeted by the sight of scores of soldiers and a pyre made of ancient wood. The soldiers are burning books, and the white ashes floating upwards makes Estrella at first fear that they are burning doves. A crying old man with a long beard like Estrella’s grandfather is begging the men not to burn his books, but the soldiers just laugh at him and toss burning ashes on his coat, a garment emblazoned with a red circle that marks him as a Jew.
Abra, Estrella’s mother, finds her shocked daughter in the crowd of onlookers and herds her away from the spectacle, but Catalina stays to watch as the soldiers kick the man, now curled up on the ground. This was the first of a series of events that would begin to separate the two best friends.
Ethnic and religious tensions have been common in Spain for centuries. In fact, Estrella’s community is divided into three distinct areas. She and Catalina live with their families in the main part or Christian section of the village, while descendants of Jews who had refused to convert to Christianity a hundred years earlier lived in the juderia, a gated area in a part of Encaleflora where the girls are forbidden to go. They’re allowed to visit the Muslim area, but it is located on the outskirts of town, since its people are forbidden from living side-by-side with Christians.
Estrella has grown up with these divisions and is used to living with other differences, as well. For example, her family and those in her church make the sign of the cross differently from Catalina’s family, but it has never caused any problems for them. Nor has the fact that Estrella keeps a small pig, Dini, as her special pet, while other families turn the pigs they own into chorizo every spring, stopped Catalina from coming over and helping her dress him up in baby clothes.
No, every family has their unique ways and secrets along with their sources of pride. Estrella’s mother knows all about herbs and medicine, and her brother Luis is a seminary student and on his way to being a great man one day. Meanwhile, Catalina’s family has her cousin Andres, who has come to live with them and will one day, at least in Catalina’s plans, marry her and make them rich with her father’s olive grove. Could such seemingly harmless differences really matter? The answer is wholly unexpected for both girls.
In Incantation, Hoffman uses the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition to weave a story of love, faith, betrayal, and death. Part coming-of-age novel, part social commentary, and part historical treatise, the book is a fast read, like most of the author’s other works. Its subject matter, however, may make it disturbing for some younger readers. Hoffman avoids the gratuitous gore one might find in an adult novel on this theme, but she doesn’t gloss over the horrors of such things as watching loved ones being burned at the stake. Despite its title, the novel has very little to do with magic, but it does touch on Jewish mysticism and the superstitions of the time period.
What truly makes this novel worth reading for Christians, though, is its exploration of faith and its relationship to identity. Is faith dependent on your culture, your ethnicity, or your personal convictions? Does being born into a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish family mean that you are somehow locked into that identity and belief system, or can you choose to change? Does religion define who you really are?
Hoffman’s views in her story do not correspond with the Christian worldview, but the thought-provoking nature of the questions themselves could be a good starting point for some personal soul-searching, making this book an interesting read—especially when a parent chooses to read and discuss it with his or her teen.
Image copyright Little, Brown. Review copy from the writer’s personal collection.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for"USA Today,"the"Arizona Republic," the"Daily Oklahoman," the "US Review of Books," and more.
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