________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 23 . . . . February 17, 2012


The Last Song.

Eva Wiseman.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2012.
225 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-979-5.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Joan Marshall.

***½ /4



“We’ll save time if we cross the Plaza de Zocodover,” Yussuf said.

I followed him to the square. When we turned the corner, we came to a sudden stop. The plaza was filled with people. Two stands had been built at the back of the square. One was occupied by clergy and nobility in rich garments, the other by dirty wretches in sambenitos. Linking the two stands was an altar draped in black, with a cross attached to it. I barely noticed the stands. My eyes were riveted on a pyre in the middle of the square. Men and women were tied to stakes and being burned alive. It was an auto-de-fe, an act of faith, the public burning of heretics convicted by the Inquisition. I had never seen one before. I closed my eyes, but when I opened them again, I saw the same dreadful sight. Screams of agony filled the air. A lout, carrying a burning staff, ran up to one of the victims and lit the wretched man’s beard on fire. The crowd roared. How can they be so cruel? I wondered. I hugged myself tightly.

Yussuf pulled on my sleeve. “Mistress, we must go!”

I barely heard him. “People are being burned alive!”

The stench of roasting flesh made me gag and I vomited. The Moor put his mighty arm around my shoulder and dragged me out of the plaza. He sat me down on the ground, under the shade of a tree. He wiped my face with his hands until the color returned to my cheeks.

Isabel de Cardosa is the 15-year-old daughter of the well-respected physician to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of the Spain that is mired in the Inquisition of the 16th century. In order to keep Isabel safe from suspicion and religious persecution, her father betroths her to Luis de Carrera, the spoiled and vicious son of their majesty’s closest advisor. Isabel’s parents reveal to her that they are actually Converso, of Jewish ancestry, their parents having embraced the Roman Catholic faith in order to escape torture and death at the hands of the Church. As the marriage trap closes inexorably on Isabel, she begins to feel like the caged songbird that her father brought to her from the Alhambra Palace in the Kingdom of Granada where Spain’s armies had defeated the Moors and driven them out of Spain. But then Isabel makes the acquaintance of Yonah, the Jewish silversmith, who creates a beautiful caged golden bird for a centerpiece in the de Cardosa home. Gradually, she finds herself secretly drawn into the Jewish faith and customs, aligning herself with Yonah and his family as she avoids the loutish Luis. After using the Jewish community’s gold in the conquest of the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella betray them by expelling the Jews from Spain, under pain of death if they refuse to leave. The cold and threatening head of the Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada, has Isabel’s father, Don Enrique, arrested. But when Isabel shows the evil man a copy of a letter that proves that Don Enrique and Torquemada are cousins, a letter that would expose Torquemada as a member of a Converso family and a traitor, Don Enrique is released. Yonah and his family immediately hide Isabel and her family until they can escape from the furious Torquemada. Undergoing much hardship, betrayal and danger, the Jewish group walks to the port of Cartagena where they board the Santa Maria, heading for a new home in Morocco.

     Isabel is a delightful character, proper and wealthy, caught up in the intricacies of her privileged life. Gradually, she begins to question her father’s fear of the Inquisition, the beliefs of her beloved Church and the loyalty of her best friend’s family. Her deep love for her parents sustains her, but it is in Yonah’s steady, comforting and respectful love that she finds the inspiration and courage to save her family and to leave her homeland. Secondary characters, from Isabel’s friendly maid Sofia and the head of the household’s servants, the loyal Yussuf, to Isabel’s parents and the evil Torquemada are alive in their own right, capably moving along the plot and exposing this terrifying time to today’s students. The impotent position of Isabel’s mother, bewildered by the treachery surrounding her and terrified of being discovered as a closet Jew, is telling. Don Enrique’s position as a powerful man at court and at home paints a picture of the domination of men who controlled all economic and social situations. Although he, too, is fearful, he prepares a plan, and he never gives up hope, expecting almost to the end that his alliance with the de Carrera’s will protect him and his family. Although it is Isabel who has really engineered their escape, Don Enrique takes charge and marshals his family toward freedom.

     Wiseman steeps the reader in the almost unbelievable time of the Spanish Inquisition, a period when religious faith was uppermost in the lives of all from the highest to the lowest in society, a time when the Catholic Church ensured compliance through torture, when the threat of domination from the Moors and their wicked religion was horrifying to all, a time when ruthless monarchs manipulated their people at will for their own benefit. Today’s readers will be stunned by the religious persecution of the Jews and all others who opposed the Catholic Church. The markets, the dust and the sweat-soaked life on the streets of Toledo spring to life under Wiseman’s pen. Plot twists keep the reader glued to the page, wondering what will happen next to the intrepid Isabel. The pace zips along while the dialogue is lively, showing not only the fear and suspicion of the crowds but also the character of the novel’s protagonists, and only occasionally drifting into informing the reader of facts. As the group boards the ship to Morocco, they sing “Dayenu”, a Passover song celebrating God’s support of them, their last song on Spanish soil.

     As in her previous work, Wiseman celebrates the strengths and fortitude of the Jewish people in the face of horrifying cruelty and misunderstanding, and documents once again the expulsion from society and the necessity of starting a new life that have faced Jews through the ages. She builds a picture of a compelling teen girl who changes her own life and that of the people around her through her questions and courage, sending the message to today’s girls that they, too, can be effective leaders. The theme of being open to change and to acceptance of others’ faiths rings through loud and clear.

     Middle school readers and their teachers across Canada and the U.S. will be thrilled to include this excellent novel in their history and language arts classes.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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