Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: "By Fire, By Water" by James Kaplan

This story takes place during the Spanish Inquisition and features characters from all of the main groups that clashed with such ferocity. Judith Migdal is a Jew, an artist who remained faithful to her tradition. Luis de Santangel is a from a converso family (Jews who converted to Christianity). He is Chancellor of the realm and a close friend of the king. Despite Santangel's wealth, power and royal connections, he is vulnerable by virtue of his Jewish heritage. Queen Isabel is a Christian fanatic whose spiritual passions are fanned by Torquemada, the head of the Inquisition (and one of the truly evil characters in history). Cristobal Colon is a kind of catalyst whose efforts to fund a journey across the sea keeps the story moving forward.

It is a complex story with a lot of characters set at a time in history when fanaticism -- religious, scientific, economic -- reigns supreme and careens out of control. Moderate voices are silenced -- violently. The story world is a terrifying place for everyone involved -- including the reader.

The Christian monarchs drive the Jews from Spain on the basis of lies and an interpretation of Christianity that is at odds with the biblical narrative. The Inquisition terrorizes everyone who remains in the country. The innocent suffer along with the guilty. Love seems impossible under such circumstances, and yet there are stolen moments of joy. True faith in a good and decent God manages to survive in the hearts of a few souls, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Purity of heart is no guarantee a person will avoid the rack, however.

The writing is not bad, but it isn't really on a par with the power of the story itself. The plot and the characters are compelling enough to overcome the pedestrian writing, however.

The book left me feeling sad, but also inspired by the dignity and grace of the character of Judith who I think lies at the heart of the story, a model of faith, hope and charity. Judith faces the adversity in her life with both courage and creativity. She loves passionately, works hard, and remains always true to her beliefs despite all the craziness that goes on around her. I think that's what life is about.

No comments:

Post a Comment