The Map­mak­er’s Daughter

  • Review
By – January 9, 2014

The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter plunges read­ers back to the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry when Jews nav­i­gat­ed between uneasy worlds, between the roy­al courts of medieval Spain and walled ghet­tos with locked gates.

In this his­tor­i­cal nov­el, Jews are trust­ed roy­al advi­sors and finan­cial sup­port­ers. They are physi­cians who tend ail­ing mon­archs or car­tog­ra­phers who illus­trate maps used to dis­patch explor­ers on voy­ages in search of new lands and trea­sure. But along the cob­ble­stone streets in the Jew­ish quar­ters, they wear yel­low cir­cles to mark their iden­ti­ty and face increas­ing­ly vio­lent pres­sures to con­vert. To sur­vive, fam­i­lies make wrench­ing choic­es that sun­der rel­a­tives for generations.

Lau­rel Coro­n­a’s hero­ine, Amalia Cresques, is a descen­dant of a map­mak­ing dynasty from Pal­ma, Major­ca, car­tog­ra­phers who were descend­ed from rab­bis but con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Her sis­ter becomes a nun and anoth­er sis­ter scorns the past, but Amalia reclaims and guards her true iden­ti­ty at a time when, as she puts it, They sim­ply want Jew­ish­ness to melt away in Spain, for­got­ten by our chil­dren’s children.”

When her father los­es his hear­ing, she becomes his inter­preter, which gives her entrée into the roy­al courts of Por­tu­gal and Spain. She ris­es to become a lan­guage tutor to young Isabel­la, who will grow up to become the queen of Spain. She is a con­fi­dante to Isabel­la’s moth­er and wit­ness to the roy­al match­mak­ing and geo-polit­i­cal schem­ing of King Enrique IV, known as El Impo­tent because he was childless.

The sto­ry is told in a series of flash­backs as Amalia pre­pares to flee Spain after the edict of expul­sion issued in 1492 by her for­mer pupil, Queen Isabel­la. This time-trav­el can be dis­tract­ing when the sto­ry shifts with­in a few para­graphs from the port of Valen­cia 1492 to Sagres, Por­tu­gal 1438. But once the nar­ra­tive focus­es on Amali­a’s lin­ear life sto­ry it draws read­ers into a tense world of Jews and con­ver­sos faced with con­stant sus­pi­cion for acts of heresy as banal as eat­ing meat on Good Fri­day or shun­ning a ham bone soup.

In one chap­ter, Amalia bold­ly prays out loud, Hear oh Israel, The Lord is our God,” along with con­ver­sos con­demned to a fiery death. They were accused of secret­ly main­tain­ing Jew­ish rites and pun­ished in the all- day pub­lic spec­ta­cle of an autodafé. In real­i­ty, would a woman real­ly have tak­en the risk in the midst of an angry crowd?

No mat­ter. This is fic­tion, where the hero­ine is res­olute against all odds and gives a vivid glimpse of a wrench­ing peri­od of his­to­ry too often forgotten.

Doreen Car­va­jal’s first book, The For­get­ting Riv­er, is about her search to recov­er her Catholic fam­i­ly’s hid­den Sephardic Jew­ish roots in a mys­ti­cal white pueblo on Spain’s south­ern fron­tier in Andalusia.

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