This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees. There are many excellent novels about refugees. Sadly, this is not one of them. The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book. Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too. But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.
I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together. It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir. What a mess! And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.
It’s a dual timeline book. These are very popular now. I have no idea why. The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him. As you do. I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees. However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.
Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos. And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father? There seemed no reason. However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents. This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.
But then it just got silly. The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation. No, no, no! Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule. Not at the beginning of the 16th century! Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any. If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you? And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.
Then the auntie eloped with a slave. Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?! And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop. And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride. Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.
Oh dear. People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round. And not until over 100 years later. And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.
The whole thing was just a mess. It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.
Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”. I beg to differ!