Walk Till You Disappear

  • Review
By – October 7, 2019

Twelve-year-old Miguel Abra­no and his fam­i­ly live in late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Tuc­son, Ari­zona, descen­dants of Span­ish set­tlers who had arrived more than three hun­dred years ear­li­er. Their com­mu­ni­ty is mul­ti­cul­tur­al, an often uneasy mix of Eng­lish-speak­ing white res­i­dents, His­pan­ics who had long called the region their home, and the Native Amer­i­cans who had been oppressed and mar­gin­al­ized by suc­ces­sive con­quests. Miguel com­fort­ably switch­es between speak­ing Span­ish and Eng­lish, but anoth­er tran­si­tion will be much less com­fort­able. Although he is a deeply reli­gious Catholic and even aspires to become a priest, Miguel learns that his ances­tor, was a converso,a Jew forced to con­vert to Catholi­cism by the Span­ish monarch and pur­sued by the Inqui­si­tion as a secret Jew. Miguel will be forced to re-exam­ine his pre­vi­ous­ly sta­ble iden­ti­ty and ques­tion which rela­tion­ship, to God or his fam­i­ly, will be cen­tral to his future.

The premise of Jacque­line Dem­bar Greene’s sus­pense­ful nov­el is the sup­pos­ed­ly con­tin­u­ous iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of cryp­to-Jews liv­ing in the Amer­i­can south­west with their dis­tant her­itage. Although most cred­i­ble research has ques­tioned the accu­ra­cy of this idea, many Amer­i­can Jews are fas­ci­nat­ed by any pos­si­ble link between Span­ish Mar­ra­nos and liv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. As Miguel approach­es young adult­hood, he becomes con­fused by his father’s appar­ent ambiva­lence toward their Catholic faith. A trav­el­ing Jew­ish ped­dler helps to trans­late an old doc­u­ment, which has been in the family’s pos­ses­sion since their arrival to the New World, and Miguel learns more than he was pre­pared to about his true back­ground. When he lat­er meets Rush­ing Cloud, a Native Amer­i­can boy who has been forcibly edu­cat­ed in a Catholic Mis­sion school, he is sen­si­tized to the cru­el treat­ment by the church of its cap­tive stu­dents. They are forced to accept Chris­tian­i­ty and Euro­pean cul­ture at the expense of their own lan­guage and tra­di­tions, and Miguel’s eyes are opened to the dis­turb­ing par­al­lel in his own experience.

There are sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal inac­cu­ra­cies in this nov­el, but they may not be errors so much as fic­tion­al ele­ments intend­ed to sup­port the book’s mes­sage of tol­er­ance and eth­nic pride. The Inqui­si­tion was a church body, which did not have sol­diers;” they inter­ro­gat­ed and tor­tured sus­pect­ed heretics, but then turned them over to sec­u­lar author­i­ties. The Span­ish Crown did not con­script Mar­ra­nos­to fight in the Amer­i­c­as. Nor is it like­ly that six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jews would have drawn par­al­lels between their own pun­ish­ment by the Catholic Church and that inflict­ed on Native Amer­i­cans. Yet there are oth­er truth­ful and dra­mat­ic lessons for young read­ers in Dem­bar Greene’s book. Miguel’s con­flict with his par­ents, his dis­il­lu­sion at encoun­ter­ing racism among his neigh­bors, and his emo­tion­al con­nec­tion with Rush­ing Cloud as a path towards empa­thy and self-con­fi­dence, all ring true.

The author’s incor­po­ra­tion of dif­fer­ences among Native Amer­i­can tribes also adds nuance, as well as poten­tial con­tro­ver­sy, to the nar­ra­tive. While some read­ers might ques­tion the por­tray­al of the Indé (Apache) as kid­nap­pers, the prac­tices which she describes have been doc­u­ment­ed, and the con­flict between Indé, Tohono O’odham, and white set­tlers were painful­ly true. Dif­fer­ent tribes had dis­tinct cus­toms and inter­nal con­flicts, all of which were impact­ed by the theft of their land.

Miguel learns about this real­i­ty and the splin­ter­ing of his own past in this engag­ing com­ing-of-age sto­ry set in a dif­fer­ent, but rec­og­niz­able, era. Read­ers will relate to Miguel’s dif­fi­cult reflec­tion, that many things in his life now looked dif­fer­ent” and get­ting back to his fam­i­ly would only be the start of a new journey.”

The book includes an explana­to­ry After­word,” Glos­sary,” and Bib­li­og­ra­phy” all of which will be help­ful to read­ers and edu­ca­tors as they explore a sub­ject often ignored in the his­to­ry of the era.

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