Ear­li­er this week, Lau­rel Coro­na wrote about emo­tion and devel­op­ing the plot of her nov­el and her depic­tion of the mikveh in her recent­ly pub­lished nov­el The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter (Source­books). She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil andMyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The father of philoso­pher Isaac Abra­vanel and grand­fa­ther of Judah the Lion (arguably the most famous mem­ber of this illus­tri­ous fam­i­ly) was in his own time one of the great lead­ers of Jew­ish Iberia. A courtier to the Por­tuguese king, Judah Abra­vanel financed many of the ear­ly explo­rations of Prince Hen­ry the Nav­i­ga­tor and served as an advi­sor on diplo­mat­ic and oth­er mat­ters. Judah Abra­vanel is also an impor­tant char­ac­ter in my nov­el The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter (Source­books, 2014).

The dif­fi­cul­ty I had flesh­ing out the char­ac­ter of Judah is the same as with all real-life indi­vid­u­als in my his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. With invent­ed char­ac­ters, if I want to have them trav­el some­where, I research how long it would take, what route was most like­ly, what con­veyance they would use, and what might hap­pen along the way. This research takes a great deal of time and effort, but once it is done, I can pro­ceed with con­fi­dence to invent a sto­ry con­sis­tent with known facts.

With real life peo­ple, though, the chal­lenge is dif­fer­ent. There is a truth to their lives that can nev­er be known. When Judah trav­eled, he took a spe­cif­ic route, had a spe­cif­ic means of trans­porta­tion, and had spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ences along the way. I can­not hope to guess right about all that. The stan­dard to which seri­ous and rep­utable his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists hold them­selves may vary in some par­tic­u­lars, but the bot­tom line is that as long as we don’t do any­thing to mis­rep­re­sent the per­son or the sto­ry, a nov­el­ist is free to fill in the details.

What has to be filled in, how­ev­er, is almost every­thing that makes a nov­el — dia­logue, every­day details, emo­tion­al life. I may not know specif­i­cal­ly what Judah Abra­vanel had for break­fast, but if I know what was typ­i­cal for Jews of the time, it is rea­son­able to put a plate of that in front of him. Assum­ing some reac­tions and emo­tions are uni­ver­sal seems fair as well. It’s either that or not write at all, so I make my peace with the idea that I can get many par­tic­u­lars wrong with­out telling untruths in a larg­er, more impor­tant sense. 

With Judah I faced anoth­er dilem­ma, one which I think may give some read­ers pause. I want to avoid spoil­ers, so I must keep this gen­er­al, and you can read the book if your curios­i­ty is aroused. At one point he advis­es a young, intel­li­gent, and spir­it­ed Jew­ish wid­ow that she might want to con­sid­er nur­tur­ing a rela­tion­ship with an attrac­tive, unmar­ried Mus­lim man vis­it­ing Lis­bon. Wait a minute,” I hear you say­ing. Could that happen?”

The answer, I believe, is yes it could. Would it? I don’t know. Do you? Since she was a wid­ow, there was no chasti­ty to pro­tect and lit­tle chance any Jew­ish man would pro­pose mar­riage. In fact, the Tal­mud strong­ly warns against mar­ry­ing a wid­ow for fear her late husband’s spir­it would cause trou­ble. Still, it would take a very spe­cial man to care about this woman’s hap­pi­ness, and to ven­ture into the ter­ri­to­ry of her per­son­al relationships. 

Was Judah this kind of man? Pos­si­bly not. Per­haps he would have stern­ly admon­ished her to keep to her widow’s weeds and not ques­tion God’s will. That fits the stereo­type, but how accu­rate are those? Per­haps we don’t give peo­ple of that time enough cred­it for hav­ing their own minds.

At any rate, I chose to think of Judah as rec­og­niz­ing that what falls out­side of obser­vance of Jew­ish law is a mat­ter of choice, some­one able to rec­og­nize what is no one else’s busi­ness. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like this ver­sion of him. Besides, as a nov­el­ist, an open­ing for a very roman­tic and pas­sion­ate rela­tion­ship is an oppor­tu­ni­ty not to be missed. It is fic­tion, after all, and his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists count on read­ers to remem­ber that.

Lau­rel Coro­na is a pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties and World Reli­gions at San Diego City Col­lege. She received a Christo­pher Medal for her non-fic­tion book Until Our Last Breath: A Holo­caust Sto­ry of Love and Par­ti­san Resis­tance (St. Mar­t­in’s Press, 2008), and in addi­tion to The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter (Source­books, 2014) has writ­ten thee oth­er nov­els focus­ing on real women over­looked or mis­rep­re­sent­ed in his­to­ry. Vis­it her web­site here.

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