Mitchell James Kaplan's novel By Fire, By Water is an absorbing and engaging work of historical fiction about the conversos of Inquisition-era Spain- conversos being Jews who converted to Christianity (Catholicism) and either may or may not continue to practice Judaism in secret.
At this time, the Catholic Church was a powerful political and military as well as spiritual force, and allegiance to the Pope was as much about ensuring one's physical safety as it was about what one believed in; Jews in many countries were persecuted, uprooted or forcibly converted, and those who refused could suffer for it if their government didn't protect them. By Fire, By Water focuses on one such converso, Luis de Santangel, a real historical figure of medieval Spain and confidant of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella; he was also pivotal in convincing them to support Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage.
This story covers more personal ground. Santangel starts to struggle with identity as a Christian and wants to reconnect with his Judaism and Jewish culture; to this end he starts to cast about for others like him who might be able to provide a sense of community or just a place to practice a little, however secretly. But during the Inquisition this kind of thing could bring serious consequences for not only the practitioner but the practitioner's family, and it's not long before Santangel, his son and his brother begin to feel pressured. But not all Jews live under this close scrutiny; others, like silversmith Judith Migdal, are protected and can live openly. Santangel is captivated by Migdal and they have a relationship; she is a strong and appealing woman who I wish I'd seen more of in the book. As the story progresses, Kaplan shows us how these forces come together and affect Santangel's family, for better and for worse.
By Fire, By Water is very good historical fiction. Kaplan's research shows without calling attention to itself, and the fictionalized aspects of the story flow well. I liked his depictions of different kinds of Jews- those practicing openly, those practicing secretly, and those who don't even know that they're practicing- and seeing the Jewish characters interacting with their Muslim and Christian neighbors. Kaplan creates a vivid community peopled by varied characters of different social strata and backgrounds. If you read and enjoyed any of Maggie Anton's Rashi's Daughters series you'll find yourself on familiar ground. The writing is florid and highly descriptive but not overmuch; Kaplan strikes a good balance between the era he's writing about and the era he's writing for. I'd recommend it to readers of historical fiction and Jewish books, and anyone who likes a good story well told.
Come back tomorrow for my interview with Kaplan, the final installment in this week about Other Press!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.
Posts in Other Press Week:
- Publisher Spotlight on Other Press: Introduction,
- Sunday: Interview with Publisher Judith Gurewich,
- Monday: Review of The Wrong Blood, by Manuel de Lope,
- Tuesday: Review of The Debba, by Avner Mandelman,
- Wednesday: Interview with Avner Mandelman,
- Thursday: Review of By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan.
- Friday: Interview with Mitchell James Kaplan