• Review
By – June 15, 2012
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​.ajl​jew​ish​val​ues​.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).

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