The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition

Riverhead Books  2012


A powerful memoir, The Forgetting River tells the moving story of the author’s quest to uncover her family’s secret heritage. Carvajal was raised to believe her family hailed from Costa Rica, and that their roots were deeply buried in the Latin American Catholic soil. But during her early adulthood, when she leaves her California home and moves first to New York, then to Paris, and finally to a tiny, centuries-old town in Andalucia in southern Spain, she begins to suspect that there is more to the story than she had been told. One clue at a time, she discovers that her true heritage is connected to Jewish Spain, and that her ancestors were forced to convert during the Spanish Reformation.

As she unravels the thread of her family history, she works with scientists to track her DNA and digs deep beneath the ancient beauty of whitewashed buildings to try to understand her own beginnings, finally satisfying the craving for belonging she has carried with her since childhood. As she begins to understand and accept her heritage, she gains the sense of place that has eluded her all her life.

Carvajal is a journalist who understands the nuance and beauty of travel writing. Combining this gift with this highly personal story, she creates a book that shimmers with enchantment, pulling the reader into her life with gentle tugs on the heartstrings. What she calls “hunting family ghosts” will resonate with anyone who has ever felt out of place where they were and dreamed of finding another heritage just one layer beneath the one they had always accepted as the bedrock of their self-definition.

Twitter Book Club

Read a transcript from the October 23, 2012 Twitter Book Club with Doreen Carvajal. 


Read Doreen's Posts on the Visiting Scribe

Discussion Questions

1. In the golden age of Spanish literature, the converso descendants of Sephardic Jews wrote with double meanings in symbols and codes addressed to other conversos in the know. What are some recurring symbols, such as fire, that surface in chapters of The Forgetting River?

2. The author struggled to piece together the fragments of her family's secret origins using what key elements? What are the most defining moments of your own family's history and is there a critical missing fragment?

3. When you study your own family tree, can you associate names of distant relatives with a picture, personality and a story? What are strategies you can use to bring the memories and history of your ancestors?

4. At one point a converso descendant who had guarded his family's secret origins answers a curious relative's questions by saying: "Don't ask. Think." Do you have examples in your own family where secrets were transmitted to generations through non-verbal actions or symbols? What happened when you asked questions?

5.The writer makes an emotional connection to the south of Spain, feeling almost a mystical tie. Some anusim or converso descendants have an expression, saying the "blood calls." Have you ever visited the homeland of your ancestors? What were your reactions?

6. What impact did the DNA results have on the author's search to reclaim her family's hidden identity? Have you ever tested your DNA and what impact did it have on your own view of personal family history?

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