The burning of Jewish books in the town square is the first portent that life for sixteen-year-old Estrella is going to change. Set in Spain during the Middle Ages, the story is about secrets and self-knowledge. Estrella’s family are Conversos, who practice Judaism in secret at home and in a church where all of the congregation plus the priest are like themselves. As the persecution of Jews draws ever closer to Estrella’s own family, she is told about their secret, given a ring to buy herself safe passage to Amsterdam if need be, and taught the rudiments of kabbalah by her learned grandfather. This unlikely act is undoubtedly a gesture toward the current popularity of kabbalah and it does little to mar the credibility of the plot, consisting only of a few “kabbalistic” customs like wearing a red thread and learning the names of the ten gates of Paradise. More central to the story is Estrella/Esther’s development from a carefree girl to a young woman fated to pass on her family’s heritage virtually alone. As in other of Hoffman’s books, nature and magic are intertwined. Estrella’s mother is a dyer and a healer; her grandfather is a surgeon and a scholar. The witchcraft of which they are accused is practical magic, the kind that works not through the supernatural but through knowledge heightened by insight. Throughout the book, Estrella’s mother teaches her about the natural world and how humans use it for good or evil. At the conclusion, after some horrific scenes of torture and burnings, she flees, having learned that “a Jew can never be attached to a place…We cannot have roots in the earth of any country, only in the garden that we carry inside us.” This is a somber message for the teens of today and it is offset by other conflicts that they may find more appealing: the true nature of a false friend, and rivalry over a boy friend. Admirers of Alice Hoffman will enjoy her evocative writing style, but Incantation is one of her lesser works. For teens and adults.
Linda R. Silver is a specialist in Jewish children’s literature. She is editor of the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Jewish Valuesfinder, www.ajljewishvalues.org, and author of Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens: A JPS Guide (The Jewish Publication Society, 2010) and The Jewish Values Finder: A Guide to Values in Jewish Children’s Literature (Neal-Schuman, 2008).