‘The Last Song’ by Eva Wiseman

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Harriet Zaidman

In her latest novel, Winnipegger Eva Wiseman brings to life a pivotal moment in European history– the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 by the notorious holy Inquisition. Wiseman continues her exploration of the centuries of discrimination against Jews, a topic she knows well as the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and as a child immigrant to Canada herself. Five of her previous six novels center on the Holocaust in World War II and the effects on those who survived the Nazi brutality. Her celebrated work Kanada (winner of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People) is based on her parents’ experiences in the concentration camps.

In The Last Song she creates a realistic situation of Jews masquerading as Catholics. Her characters are credible, her plot faithful to history. Wiseman’s prose communicates the sights and smells of the crowded streets of fifteenth century Toledo as well as the grandeur of the wealthy. Through her characters we feel the danger of being ‘other’ in a society that capitalized on superstition and lack of knowledge, that had no tolerance for nonconformity. The Last Song will educate young readers about this important time in history, using language that is rich and instructional.  

The roots of Hitler’s madness extend back in time to when the Roman Catholic Church used Jews as moneylenders because of scriptural strictures on usury. Jews as a group became easy scapegoats when wars produced debt instead of riches, when the greed of the ruling classes caused the impoverishment of the peasantry, starvation and epidemics. The economic basis of racism became entrenched in society so that vilification of Jews as demons, heretics, even child-stealers, etc. became normalized.

So it was in Spain as it emerged from the Middle Ages at the beginning of the Age of Exploration. The Muslim Moors had occupied Southern Spain for several hundred years and Jews had lived peaceably among them. But when the Spanish monarchy of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella recaptured the final regions from the Moors in 1492 (ironically an effort at least partly financed by Jews), they imposed the stamp of the Catholic Church through the court of the holy Inquisition.

Toledo had been retaken by the monarchy in 1085. Isabel, the fifteen-year-old heroine of The Last Song, thinks her family is devoutly Catholic, when to her horror and confusion she learns she is descended from conversos, people who adopted Catholicism to escape persecution and possible death for the supposed crime of being Jewish. She learns that her father’s position as physician to their royal majesties means nothing; her heritage is a brand – she is a Murrano, a pig, and therefore at risk. Further, her parents still practice Jewish rites in secret, making them even more vulnerable to the cruel judgments of the religious zealots.

Her parents arrange a marriage for her to the son of a respected Catholic family. But her betrothed is an uncouth boor whose treatment of her foreshadows a life of humiliation and abuse. They are unmoved by her protests, trying to secure her safety. At the same time she meets a Jewish boy, Yonah, the son of a silversmith, who is not ashamed to wear the badge Jews must display on their clothing. She confesses her family’s secret to Jonah. As their romance blooms he introduces her Jewish customs and celebrations in Juderia, the ghetto where Jews are forced to live.

In this scene and others Wiseman shows her strengths at research and imagining. The setting comes alive for young readers. Picture being a young teen five hundred years ago, trying to buy meat for dinner:

The din of the arguing, shouting, bargaining people in Butchers Row was deafening. I used my right elbow to shove my way through the crowd, and I lifted my skirts with my left hand to keep them out of the sludge on the streets, but it was useless. I gave up and let my skirts drag along the muddy ground while I buried my nose in my sleeve. The smell of blood was heavy in the air.

Similarly, she evokes strong images of the prison where her father is tortured as well as the hot dusty journey of the frightened souls struggling to get to the port towns after the expulsion order.

Admirably, Wiseman writes an accessible story through elevated language. Aimed at children aged eleven to fourteen, target readers will sense the meaning of historically relevant words: “First came a group of women with matted hair and bare feet, dressed in ragged yellow sackcloth tunics – sambenitos.” Or “A long row of the Inquisition’s familiars, its officers, in black clothing trailed the procession.” They will also understand the meaning of higher-level words thanks to Wiseman’s skill at incorporating explanations: “Lying on filthy straw, spectral creatures were chained to the wall. One wild-eyed man dressed in rags… moaned piteously.”  Or “… the anusim, the forced ones… Because your family was forced to convert by the sword. They had to convert or die.”

Isabel’s parents have a secret that gives them a brief reprieve from the Inquisition, but finally they suffer the same fate as Jews who lived openly. They are expelled from the country, forced to leave behind their goods and money for the monarchy and their minions to appropriate. This same fate was visited upon the Muslims in Spain in the years that followed. In her odyssey of discovery, Isabel, who had previously accepted the Church’s pronouncement that Jews were heretics, learned who her real friends were, and above all, “Our people are no better and no worse than anybody else.”

The disruption wrought by the Inquisition rippled through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; its effects are still felt in the societies where Jews settled and through their subsequent migrations after further turmoil and discrimination in the twentieth century.

Wiseman began to broaden her scope with the publication of Puppet, a heartbreaking story about the blood libel myths that circulated in Europe in the nineteenth century, excuses for pogroms and the wanton massacres of Jews. Puppet won the 2010 McNally Robinson Book of the Year for Young People Award (Older Category).

The Last Song is an interesting and well-written novel that could also be used in classroom settings to support the study of historical discrimination. Maintaining the high standards of historical accuracy and quality writing for which she is known, The Last Song will be as popular with Wiseman’s readers as her earlier works.

Tundra | 232 pages |  $19.99 | cloth | ISBN #978-0887769795

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Harriet Zaidman

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian and book reviewer living in Winnipeg.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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