José and the Pirate Cap­tain Toledano

By – June 3, 2022

Jews who chose to remain in Spain and Por­tu­gal after the fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry edicts of expul­sion faced two choic­es: they could con­vert and live as Chris­tians, or they could become mem­bers of the Church but secret­ly prac­tice Judaism. The sec­ond path was more dan­ger­ous, but even Jews who com­plete­ly denied their faith were sub­ject to racial­ly based anti­semitism. In Arnon Z. Shorr and Joshua M. Edelglass’s graph­ic nov­el, a young boy and his father liv­ing in the Span­ish colony of San­to Domin­go try to steer a care­ful path between alle­giance to the Crown and fideli­ty to their reli­gion. As fast-paced and excit­ing as any pirate tale, José and the Pirate Cap­tain Toledano also explores dif­fi­cult ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, fam­i­ly, and becom­ing an adult under ardu­ous circumstances.

Some con­ver­sos (Jews who had con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism) tried to escape prej­u­dice in the New World, but the Inqui­si­tion pur­sued them there, as well. José Alfaro’s father believes that his posi­tion as trea­sur­er will make him indis­pens­able. Out­ward­ly loy­al to the gov­ern­ment he rep­re­sents, Señor Alfaro edu­cates his son pri­vate­ly but still con­ceals from him the fact that he is Jew. José resents the lessons, believ­ing that his lev­el of knowl­edge caus­es local res­i­dents to resent him. José’s rage remains just under the sur­face, ready to explode if he is pro­voked. His father’s belief that he can keep his dig­ni­ty and still pre­serve his past is root­ed in des­per­a­tion. Both text and pic­tures stark­ly present the dilem­ma of char­ac­ters caught up in con­tra­dic­tions. As José tries to explain his frus­tra­tion, his father responds with anger; they rep­re­sent two gen­er­a­tions at odds with one anoth­er. With­out the miss­ing piece of their Jew­ish past, how could José make sense of his father’s admo­ni­tion that to be holy … is to be different?”

Shorr’s pirate scenes achieve the nec­es­sary bal­ance between adven­ture and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. With­out roman­ti­ciz­ing law­less­ness, he reveals Cap­tain Toledano’s role as a com­plex inter­ac­tion of his­tor­i­cal neces­si­ty and per­son­al choice. There is ten­sion between those who uphold cru­el and uneth­i­cal norms, and the out­siders who chal­lenge them by sub­sti­tut­ing an unsanc­tioned sys­tem of val­ues. Jews and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized peo­ples are forced to con­sid­er the con­se­quences of their actions, whether they accept unjust lim­i­ta­tions or fight against their oppres­sors. Grad­u­al­ly, as the sto­ry unfolds, José begins to under­stand why his father had encour­aged him to be dif­fer­ent, but only with­in seem­ing­ly arbi­trary bound­aries. The author also con­sid­ers the spe­cif­ic obsta­cles con­fronting women in the char­ac­ter of José’s love inter­est, Rosa. The nov­el takes place in 1547, when the native Taino Indi­ans had almost com­plete­ly dis­ap­peared due to con­quest and dis­ease, but Shorr includes char­ac­ters who embody their trag­ic experience.

Edelglass’s illus­tra­tions fea­ture mut­ed col­ors, exag­ger­at­ed facial expres­sions, and con­scious­ly cho­sen sound effects from the comics reper­toire (BOOM!, WHOA!, and FWOOSH make appear­ances.) In between, there are moments of still­ness and detailed beau­ty, such as Cap­tain Toledano hold­ing José’s engraved sil­ver kid­dush cup in his gnarled hand as he stares fixed­ly at every­thing this rit­u­al object sug­gests about what Jews have lost. Swash­buck­ling heroes and anti­heroes, Jews, Chris­tians, and Indi­ans, all per­son­i­fy the costs of liv­ing in two worlds and strug­gling to remain free.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Arnon Z. Shorr and Joshua Edelglass