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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mapmaker's Daughter: Choosing To Be Jewish in the Midst of Persecution

I had no expectations of The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona when I decided to read it.  I had never read this author.  I had seen the book in my Goodreads friends feed and was curious.  Yet when I didn't have time to finish the book and was forced to return it to the library, I checked it out again because I was so impressed by what I'd read.

It deals with a fictional woman who was born Jewish in 15th century Spain.  Her family converted to Christianity but she never really stopped being Jewish.  If you think this is another book about the hidden Jews of Spain, you would be wrong.  This is a very different story. 


In the first two sections of this book the accomplishments of fictional  protagonist Amalia were really impressive.  As an adolescent she created a signing system for her deaf father, and presumably taught it to him so that they could utilize it for communication.  Then she became his interpreter.  Since her father became the mapmaker for Prince Henry the Navigator, he traveled in exalted circles and so did she.  She had a facility for spoken languages and learned a number of them.  Later she translated a great deal of Hebrew poetry into Portuguese for the Duke of Braganza.  She also wrote her own poetry.  She became the instructor of the grandchildren of the King of Granada, and then returned to her birthplace to teach the future Queen Isabella of Castille.

Yet Amalia maintained family as her haven when she felt a need for support.  What's interesting about this is that it wasn't her genetic family of conversos.  Amalia had actually chosen a prominent family that remained Jewish, and were leaders in the Jewish community of Andalusia, as her own.  They warmly embraced Amalia.  They were the Abravanels. The Abravanels of this era are known historical personages.   See the Wikipedia article on Isaac Abravanel who is a significant character in this novel.

So I felt that the third section in which Amalia made a permanent life for herself among the Abravanels  and completely identified with them also made a strong statement.  She could have made another choice, and become a fervent Christian converso like her sisters.    She had a number of opportunities to take that road.  She could have joined Ferdinand and Isabella's court as a converso, but it was filled with intolerance, danger and suspicion. She had previously experienced a culturally vibrant court in Granada where her knowledge was valued and her Jewish religion was respected.  It's easy to see why Amalia decided to distance herself from the monarchs known as Their Most Christian Majesties.    

Yet what about her father the mapmaker and the maps he made?  I was impressed with her father. He refused to continue making maps for Prince Henry the Navigator when he discovered that the Portuguese prince was using them to build the slave trade.  Both Amalia and her father thought that slavery was wrong, and that participation in it would be a betrayal of the memory of their Biblical ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.

I also liked the fact that Amalia's father was a deaf character who was widely respected for his profession. Thanks to his daughter's sign language and her role as interpreter, being deaf didn't hold him back.  Judah Abravanel says in the novel that if Amalia's sign language became more widely known, it could bring people together and reduce conflict.   I smiled at that point because it reminded me of  "The Bridge of Signs" proposed by deaf writer, Albert Ballin.  I blogged about it at The Unmasked Persona here .  Ballin believed that people could communicate by deaf sign language when they had no other language in common.  Yet deaf sign language isn't one language by any means.  In The Mapmaker's Daughter, the signs utilized by Amalia and her father were a language known by only two individuals.  Today there are national sign languages, but they are all quite different. They also each have dialects and idiolects.  Idiolects refers to individual variations in signing.  They make sign language a very expressive means of communication for individuals.  So the vision of an international "Bridge of Signs" that I encountered again in this novel is utopian and highly unlikely.

After her father's death, the only thing that Amalia had left from her father was his atlas.  Some other reviewers of this book didn't understand why the atlas kept on being brought up.  I believe that it represented mesorah, a Hebrew word which literally means that which is passed down.  It is through mesorah that a culture and a people survive.  Amalia shared the atlas with her daughter and grandchildren.  It was a link to her father that could be passed down through the generations of the Abravanel family.  That is the way that she preserved her father's memory.  The dictionary definition of mesorah is tradition, and family tradition is of paramount importance in a Jewish context.  I appreciated the significance of the atlas for Amalia and her descendants.

For me, the themes of Jewish survival and the maintenance of tradition were very well demonstrated by Laurel Corona through the story of Amalia in The Mapmaker's Daughter.  


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