By Fire, By Water

By – September 19, 2011

Luis de San­tan­gel is a con­ver­so, chan­cel­lor, investor, and friend to King Fer­di­nand in fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Spain. After the mur­der of the First Chief Inquisi­tor of Aragon unleash­es the fury of the Inqui­si­tion upon the Jew­ish peo­ple and all con­ver­sos, San­tan­gel learns that one of his friends is about to meet his demise. As this hor­rif­ic process ensues, San­tan­gel meets a pious monk, a Jew­ish woman to whom he is attract­ed, the explor­er Cristo­bal Colon (Christo­pher Colum­bus), and oth­ers who lead him to explore his aban­doned Jew­ish faith. Kaplan depicts many of his char­ac­ters, includ­ing Gen­er­al Tomas de Torque­ma­da, beyond sim­plis­tic stereo­types. In By Fire, By Water sin­cer­est motives are ques­tioned, weak­ened, strength­ened, and defied until the mob rule” of ter­ror spins out of con­trol, leav­ing all to mourn, remem­ber, ques­tion, defy, deep­en, and cel­e­brate the pre­cious gift of faith held at such an appalling cost.

Deb­o­rah Schoen­e­man, is a for­mer Eng­lish teacher/​Writing Across the Cur­ricu­lum Cen­ter Coor­di­na­tor at North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my High School and coed­i­tor of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture: A Library of Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism, Vol. VI, pub­lished in 1997.

Discussion Questions

1. What did you know about the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion (14781834) pri­or to read­ing By Fire, By Water? How did this sto­ry influ­ence or increase your under­stand­ing of this his­tor­i­cal period?

2. In By Fire, By Water, trust­ing some­one can lead to life or death. Dis­cuss the var­i­ous rela­tion­ships in the nov­el that lead to both. What kind of trust do the char­ac­ters have in God? How does trust vary depend­ing on the character’s social class or reli­gious beliefs?

3. How do the female char­ac­ters, liv­ing in a strong­ly patri­ar­chal soci­ety, acqui­esce to or rebel against their culture’s expec­ta­tions of them? How does Judith break the mold for female behav­ior in her com­mu­ni­ty? What about Judith catch­es Santángel’s eye, and lat­er com­pels him to seek her out?

4. What kind of a father is San­tán­gel? Ear­ly in the nov­el, he tells his son a sto­ry about a man with a great trea­sure” who is unable to show it to any­one (pages 30 – 31). To what is this sto­ry allud­ing? Do you think Gabriel real­ly believed his father was unfaith­ful to the church or was Gabriel try­ing to pro­tect his father by stay­ing away from him?

5. What com­pels San­tán­gel to learn about the Jew­ish faith? What is each group member’s pur­pose for join­ing his secret reli­gious meet­ings? How does the small group help, sup­port, or hurt its members?

6. Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of the novel’s title, By Fire, By Water.

7. The death of Felipe, Santángel’s assis­tant, in many ways acts as a cat­a­lyst. Why do you think this is the break­ing point for San­tán­gel? How does his secretary’s death affect his faith?

8. Why do you think Leonor, Felipe’s wife, feels so pro­tec­tive of San­tán­gel when he is the one who allowed Felipe to join the secret group, and thus, is par­tial­ly to blame for her husband’s death?

9. On page 97, Judith los­es Levi for an after­noon and, in her search and wor­ry­ing, reas­sures her­self that, His­to­ry nev­er repeats itself.” Do you find evi­dence in the nov­el to sup­port this claim?

10. What was your impres­sion of King Fer­nan­do and Queen Ysabel? How do the mon­archs dif­fer from Granada’s emir? What do they have in common?

11. What influ­ence do reli­gious lead­ers hold over the king and queen? How does this influ­ence dif­fer from that of San­tán­gel and his mon­ey? Do you think any reli­gious lead­ers have that sort of pow­er today?

12. Let­ter writ­ing, tran­scrip­tion, and writ­ten his­to­ry play an enor­mous part in the nov­el. In what ways do char­ac­ters use writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion to help them? In what ways does it haunt them?

13. What was your first impres­sion of Este­fan, Santángel’s broth­er? How do the broth­ers’ per­son­al­i­ties and actions bring them to such dif­fer­ent places in their lives?

14. How did the author’s depic­tion of Cristóbal Colón con­tra­dict or con­flict with your own per­son­al knowl­edge of Christo­pher Colum­bus, who famous­ly dis­cov­ered the New World in 1492?

15. Why is Colón so keen to push his for­eign doc­u­ments on San­tán­gel? Do you believe their friend­ship was authen­tic, or was Colón mere­ly inter­est­ed in exploit­ing Santángel’s influ­ence on the king and queen?

16. Dis­cuss the mean­ing of exile in the nov­el and how var­i­ous char­ac­ters expe­ri­ence it both lit­er­al­ly and metaphorically.