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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Last Song, written by Eva Wiseman. Tundra, 2012. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"The sun was low in the sky when I followed Yonah through the El Cambron Gate leading into the Juderia. We wore long cloaks with the red and white badges on them. Bot of us were dressed in white boys' garments underneath. Again, I hid my hair under the pointed hood. "

I am not yet at the halfway point of a thirty-plus pile of young adult novels that I will read as part of a jury for the Canadian Children's Book Centre this spring and summer. The Last Song has been on my TBR pile for a short time and I was intrigued by the premise and sure that, once again, I had much to learn from a book of historical fiction. Having read other books by Eva Wiseman, I knew I was in for a thoughtful and insightful few hours.

It is set at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the city of Toledo. Isabel is a very young teen whose life is turned upside down when family secrets begin to emerge. She has been raised in a wealthy Catholic household. She becomes aware of some of her family's unusual rituals as she is exposed to the torture and humiliation she sees played out in the streets. Why does her family light candles on Fridays? Why don't they eat pork? There are no satisfactory explanations.

In fact, we quickly learn, Isabel's parents have carefully hidden their Jewish heritage and are now finding themselves in great danger. In order to protect their young daughter, they betroth her to the son of a Catholic family, hoping it will ensure her safety and help them keep their secret. Isabel despises Luis, her brutal and hateful betrothed. She is determined that she will not marry him. Her father is insistent.

Then, just as Isabel is learning about her Jewish heritage, the Inquisition comes closer to their doors. It is a very dangerous time. Neighbors betray their neighbors, Catholics betray Jews and Tourquemada comes ever closer to her father to question his religion and loyalty. It fills their life with threats and fear. Her attraction to the young Jewish silversmith Yonah, combined with her hatred of Luis, lead Isabel to seek refuge and strength in the Juderia. Many of the issues of conversos and Catholics are touched on in this story while keeping it a tale that will inform her audience, rather than terrify them.  Young readers will be satisfied with learning some of the history, while also knowing that for this family at this time, the events play out in a comforting way. There is hope for them and their new friends.

It will give its audience pause to think about some of history's events. Isabel's life has been dramatically changed and she is a different person at the end of the book than she was when we first met her. Reading her story may open the door for some readers to look beyond Eva Wiseman's introduction to a painful time in history and seek more information.

Carefully developed characters, plot twists, a palpable and terrifying time of traitors and evil, and the well described settings from privilege to squalor all play a part in making this a story that will captivate those who seek good writing in historical fiction.

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