Book Review: The Mapmaker’s Daughter

Book Review: The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

The Mapmaker's DaughterIn Sevilla, Spain in 1432, Amalia Cresques is the young daughter of a famous cartographer, whose own father was renowned for his cartography skills as well. But the family has a secret: Amalia, her sisters, and her parents conceal their Jewish heritage by living as conversos — Jews who have converted to Catholicism for the sake of survival, but who secretly practice their own religion in hiding. Amalia makes sure to be seen with dirty hands as the Jewish Sabbath approaches on Friday afternoons and buys pork and ham at the butcher shop, so that no prying neighbors can accuse the family of “Judaizing”, a crime that carries harsh punishments if caught.

In The Mapmaker’s Daughter, we follow Amalia from 1432, when she is a little girl of six, through 1492 when, as an old woman, she and her remaining family must leave the land they love as part of the Jewish expulsion from Spain ordered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Along the way, we view the life of this one woman as well as the shared experiences of the Jews of Spain and Portugal — experiences including forced conversions, hidden identities, persecution, scapegoating, ghettos, and finally banishment.

Amalia is raised from an early age to cherish her heritage, but at the same time to keep it as her most closely guarded secret. Once she and her father move to Portugal in order to accept a court appointment, Amalia begins to explore what it might mean to be more open about her religion, and ultimately finds refuge with an openly Jewish family, the Abravanels, who are esteemed by the Jewish community and who have a great influence at court. With the Abravanels, Amalia is able to embrace the rhythms and rituals of Jewish life, as well as to find a place as an adopted daughter and cherished family member.

And yet, danger is never far away. The fear of persecution is ever-present, and the risks become even greater as Torquemada’s Inquisition grows in power, threatening everyone and everything dear to Amalia.

The Mapmaker’s Daughter covers a period of history that’s both fascinating and frightening. Already familiar with the general history of the time, I still found much to learn from this book. As with all good historical fiction, The Mapmaker’s Daughter makes real events tangible by introducing us to them through the eyes of a character we care about a great deal, which only serves to heighten the impact of the great and awful circumstances that Amalia encounters.

Amalia herself is an interesting character, strong in her convictions, aching for love and connection, never giving up on her inner truths even when they put her at great risk. Desperate for passion and belonging, Amalia’s love life is not easy, but does lead to some remarkable adventures and experiences. Amalia serves as her father’s right hand during her youth, and becomes a skilled polyglot and translator, later an adept poet and tutor, and refuses to take the easier paths available to women at that time. Above all, Amalia believes in her own personal family heritage as well as the heritage of the Jewish people, and holds on to her family’s great atlas, created by her father and grandfather, as a symbol of where she came from and her family’s roots in Spain.

The story as a whole is quite interesting and moving, and yet I found it hard at times to feel emotionally connected. Perhaps this is because the earliest parts of the book are told through the eyes of Amalia as a very young girl, starting at age six, and her narrative voice doesn’t feel entirely true for her age. The pacing of the novel is somewhat problematic: We spend quite a lot of time on Amalia’s childhood, youth, and 20s, then rush through the remainder of her life in the last quarter of the book. This ending section is crammed full of relatives and descendants, children’s children, marriages and pursuits, and it just feels like a lot.

The Mapmaker’s Daughter is filled with historical figures — not just the nobility who are a more well-known part of the historical record, but also the characters who people Amalia’s life. The Cresques were in fact a well-known family of cartographers, and their masterwork, the Catalan Atlas, is considered one of the most important sets of maps of the period. Likewise, the Abravanels were a real family of Jewish scholars, philosophers, and royal advisers, and played a key role in the fate of the Jews of Spain and Portugal during this period. I only wish that I had had this information prior to reading the novel, rather than finding out via the extras at the end of the book. I think knowing which characters are in fact real people would have helped make the impact of the story even stronger.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Mapmaker’s Daughter very much. The author brings to life a chapter of history that may not be well known today, but which is certainly powerful and frightening. Using such an unusual and admirable woman as a main character helps make the plight of the Jews feel real in a much more visceral way, perhaps, than just reading a straightforward history. Despite my reservations about the book’s structure and certain issues around the narrative flow, I’m very glad to have read The Mapmaker’s Daughter, and recommend it for fans of historical fiction, particularly those who enjoy reading about time periods less heavily represented in popular literature and learning about the struggles of real people.

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The details:

Title: The Mapmaker’s Daughter
Author: Laurel Corona
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: March 1, 2014
Length: 360 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley

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