For an interview with the author, click here.
A good book grips you, pulling you along until the very end. A great book catapults you, launching you into a different universe. “The Poetry of Secrets” by Cambria Gordon is a good book in the sense that from the moment you meet the protagonist Isabel Perez, you care about her and those around her, you share her worries and her dreams, and you remain anxious to see how it all works out. But it is a great book because it plunges you into Medieval Spain, a world you haven’t thought much about lately, if ever — specifically, Gordon takes the reader to Trujillo in 1481, just as the evil Spanish Inquisition begins.
Within the book’s first few pages, the reader is in on Isabel’s two big secrets. The first she shares with other family members. They act like New Christians but are actually conversos, practicing whatever they can of Judaism, their true religion, in their wine cellar. The second secret, which Isabel doesn’t share with her family, is that she is already sneaking out of the house to attend poetry readings at the tender age of sixteen.
We also quickly meet Isabel’s two love interests. Diego is the dashing, broad-shouldered son of the town grandees, prominent Catholics who would never approve of a marriage to a New Christian of a lower class. Alas, Isabel is betrothed by her nervous father to the older, repulsive, yellow-teethed Don Sancho del Aguila, with the hope that as town constable, he will be the family’s insurance policy against the Inquisition.
As the plot plays out, the reader will benefit from Gordon’s deep research and meticulous attention to detail, enjoying a taste of what daily life was like for Jews and conversos, sincere New Christians and long-established Catholics. But rather than simply focusing on the stresses of life back then, Gordon deftly uses her story to address relevant, universal issues: the suffocating fear oppression imposes, the meaning Judaism brings to your life and the tensions between belief in God and people’s free choice, between dreams of self-fulfillment and duty to family and between marrying out of convenience or marrying — and living — for love.
Gordon cleverly makes Isabel’s father, Señor Perez, a respected, prosperous winemaker, with a mother, wife and two teenage daughters, all living happily while still mourning the death of a younger son. Their relatively comfortable place in society enhances the sense of loss as the Inquisition’s noose tightens around them. Perez clearly enjoys his deal with the devil to squelch some of his inner Jewish life so his family can flourish in society. But we discover the bitterness that this choice engenders when the Cohens, the Perez’s family friends, host them for Sukkot in the suffocating Jewish Quarter. “How do you stomach it,” Cohen wonders, sneering that the Perez family’s public piety as New Christians, especially their church attendance, “Reminds me of the time our idolater ancestors worshipped the golden calf.”
“I have never abandoned God,” Perez replies, deeply offended. “We are anusim, forced to convert under duress.”
The friendship ruptures when Cohen sneers — reflecting his own pain — “your son died for your sins.”
Observing this conversation, Isabel, while wanting “to cry for the way her innocent baby brother’s name was used for adult gain,” does wonder if her parents prefer “to have it both ways?”
It quickly becomes apparent that the Perez family isn’t just fiddling on the roof — they are juggling while dancing all together on the ridge, adding one increasingly dangerous object after another as the Inquisition gets closer to them.
Yet, while “The Poetry of Secrets” helps us understand oppression, the book is never the downer it could be. That’s because as the burdens grow, as the fear cascades, as the marriage to the older constable looms, Isabel is also doubly euphoric. She is falling in love with Diego while falling in love with Judaism itself. Guided by a forbidden volume of Talmud and her loving grandmother, Isabel shows American Jewish readers, who have Americanized so intensely and have become so lacking in basic Jewish literacy or passion, just what we’re missing by ignoring our roots, our story, our community. Gordon makes her point so deftly, so organically, that you don’t feel guilt-tripped or bullied, just intrigued.
While “The Poetry of Secrets” helps us understand oppression, it is never the downer it could be.
Ultimately, Gordon helps us understand the power of history, the blessings and burdens of remaining a link in the chain of Jewish destiny and the need to take responsibility to keep Judaism alive and thriving. Gordon observes, “History is bound to repeat itself unless we learn from our mistakes.”
The book is a “Young Adult” novel for ages 12 and up. Not being a young adult, I can’t say what reading “The Poetry of Secrets” might do for them. But all I can say is that this older adult read the book in one sitting and walked away grateful to Cambria Gordon for recapturing the prose of medieval Europe to illuminate the poetry of secrets, express the lyricism of our Jewish heritage and uncover the underlying ideological, theological and intellectual melodies that can enhance our lives.
Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar in North American History at McGill University. The author of 10 books on presidential history, his latest works include “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” and editing the updated version of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel’s “History of American Presidential Elections.”