Traveling between the Inquisition and near enough to our current time, beginning in 1492 and 1998, the history and plight of the Sephardic Jews is explored. In 1492, they were forcibly expelled from Spain, by the church, unless they gave up their faith and truly converted to Catholicism (Conversos) or Christianity (Marranos). Often, even when they did, they suffered punishment, exile and even death. They maintained their religion, worshiping in silence and in secret, orally passing on their history to their offspring, even if and also after they converted, even though the punishment if discovered was severe and immediate.
When the Guzman family is forced to leave Spain, the patriarch, Hermando, decides they will go to Portugal where he can continue to engage in his textile business. They will depart by ship, taking their unmarried daughter, Grazia, but leaving behind a daughter, Hanna, who has brought shame upon herself and her family by bearing an illegitimate child, at age 15, with an unnamed father. She is in a convent and her father has refused to allow her to travel with them, has forbidden his family to visit or aid her, intending to leave both the daughter and grandchild behind. His religious beliefs dominated his heart and mind, although, I truly felt he had no heart. Yet, my own background would speak to the truth of what many Jews did when either a child was born out of wedlock or was the product of a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, even in the recent past. The person was wiped from existence and supposedly from memory. Unbeknownst to this authoritarian, domineering parent, however, his wife, Estrella, has taken the grandchild and secreted her in the bowels of the ship with a wet nurse, engaging her daughter’s help to hide and care for the infant, Bellina. Her daughter Hanna, she could not save.
After several years in Portugal, the fates again require them to leave. Many families have had their children taken from them to be raised by the church in remote locations so that parents and children would be separated forever. The Jews, even Marranos and Conversos, were never fully trusted and were always subject to persecution. They were basically helpless to fight the powers that were greater than they, and although many worshiped in secret, they knew if discovered it could lead to torture or even death by fire for their friends and family. The auto de fe was entertainment, and as non-believers were tortured and burnt at the stake, their fate was cheered by the devotees of the church. During one of these periods of unrest, both Estrella and Hermando are killed and Grazia and Bellina, are forced to flee for their own lives, existing by their wits alone. Eventually, they wind up in Brazil, and from there the story takes on a different aspect as, eventually, each of the women pursue different avenues to survive.
Fast forward the story to 1998. Alegra Cardoza is a plain woman, unconcerned with her appearance, more like the flower child of the 1960’s, whose family history apparently began in Cuba. She is essentially without religious belief and is really unsure of her true heritage. After a severe injury, finding herself suddenly unemployed, she is frantic. She has two no-account sisters, one a hypochondriac and another whose vanity dominates her. They often rely on her and, more often than not, disappoint her. Her sometimes boyfriend, a mama’s boy, is also a constant disappointment, but he recommends that she call a Professor Harold Guzman, because he is looking for an assistant, and the story begins anew. Desperate for work, she tries for the job but fails to get it. A short time later, still unemployed, she returns to his office to plead for the position if still unfilled, or for any other available position. When fate intervenes, he hires her and she, 35, sets off for Spain, a few days later, with this 50 year old, kind of eccentric professor. He will be speaking at a symposium and also intends to do research on a novel he is writing on Sephardic Jews. It is based on his own family’s history. Thus the story of Alegra begins and blossoms, as well, paralleling the story of Bellina.
The author uses a good deal of humor as she tells the two stories with the commonality of one name, Guzman. For me, the story of the fleeing Jews, in 1492, was a more compelling tale than the modern day of Hal and Alegra . The characters were developed more fully and I was more easily attached to the Guzmans, emotionally, than to Alegra’s family and compatriots. They seemed shallow and flawed, not fully realized. The humor often fell flat, felt tired and trite. Sometimes the story felt disjointed and confusing. I felt that, at times, the age of the characters was at odds with their behavior. I often lost the thread of the timeline, not being able to figure out how long they were in one place or much time had elapsed. The use of foreign words and idiomatic expressions, without explanation, was often distracting, and the plot lines sometimes seemed contrived and unrealistic.
On the positive side, the history with its dangers, hardships, and prejudices is truthfully portrayed. The terror and brutality of the church is accurately spotlighted. I thought the women were drawn well; they were strong and capable, able to overcome all eventualities with their courage and intelligence. Most of the men were not portrayed as favorably, but they, too, were brave and resourceful, often snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The relaxation and/or the temporary suspension of their religious beliefs often led to the successful accomplishments of the victims, but they never gave up their right to worship their one G-d, even though they were being coerced to worship the Holy Trinity.
From what I found online, I believe there was an earlier publication of this book, in 2007, which contained about 350 pages. Since this one that is current is only about 230 pages, I assume it was edited with a machete, a weapon often used in the book. Reading it, I felt as if parts were missing and that may be the reason that I was sometimes perplexed.