Novel explores Conversos conflicts in 15th-century Spain

“The Mapmaker’s Daughter,” Laurel Corona’s new novel, plunges readers back to the 15th century when Jews navigated between uneasy worlds, between the royal courts of medieval Spain and walled ghettos with locked gates.

In this historical novel, Jews are trusted royal advisers and financial supporters. They are physicians who tend ailing monarchs or cartographers who illustrate maps used to dispatch explorers on voyages in search of new lands and treasure. But along the cobblestone streets in the Jewish quarters, they wear yellow circles to mark their identity and face increasingly violent pressures to convert. To survive, families make wrenching choices that sunder relatives for generations.

Corona’s heroine, Amalia Cresques, is a descendant of a mapmaking dynasty from Palma, Majorca, cartographers who were descended from rabbis but converted to Christianity. Her sister becomes a nun and another sister scorns the past, but Amalia reclaims and guards her true identity at a time when, as she puts it, “They simply want Jewishness to melt away in Spain, forgotten by our children’s children.”

When her father loses his hearing, she becomes his interpreter, which gives her entrée into the royal courts of Portugal and Spain. She rises to become a language tutor to young Isabella, who will grow up to become the queen of Spain. She is a confidante to Isabella’s mother and witness to the royal matchmaking and geopolitical scheming of King Enrique IV, known as El Impotent because he was childless.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks as Amalia prepares to flee Spain after the edict of expulsion issued in 1492 by her former pupil, Queen Isabella. This time-travel can be distracting when the story shifts within a few paragraphs from 1492 in the port of Valencia to 1438 in Sagres, Portugal. But once the narrative focuses on Amalia’s linear life story, it draws readers into a tense world of Jews and Conversos faced with constant suspicion for acts of heresy as banal as eating meat on Good Friday or shunning a ham-bone soup.

In one chapter, Amalia boldly prays out loud, “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God,” along with Conversos condemned to a fiery death. They were accused of secretly maintaining Jewish rites and punished in the all-day public spectacle of an auto-da-fé. In reality, would a woman really have taken the risk in the midst of an angry crowd?

No matter. This is fiction, where the heroine is resolute against all odds and gives a vivid glimpse of a wrenching period of history too often forgotten.

Review provided by the Jewish Book Council,

“The Mapmaker’s Daughter” by Laurel Corona (355 pages, Sourcebooks, $14.99)