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May 5, 2010

Book Review: By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Other Press (May 18, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-1590513521
Review copy provided by the author, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Four stars!

Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the court and longtime friend of the lusty King Ferdinand, has had enough of the Spanish Inquisition. As the power of Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada grows, so does the brutality of the Spanish church and the suspicion and paranoia it inspires. When a dear friend’s demise brings the violence close to home, Santángel is enraged and takes retribution into his own hands. But he is from a family of conversos, and his Jewish heritage makes him an easy target. As Santángel witnesses the horrific persecution of his loved ones, he begins slowly to reconnect with the Jewish faith his family left behind. Feeding his curiosity about his past is his growing love for Judith Migdal, a clever and beautiful Jewish woman navigating the mounting tensions in Granada. While he struggles to decide what his reputation is worth and what he can sacrifice, one man offers him a chance he thought he’d lost…the chance to hope for a better world. Christopher Columbus has plans to discover a route to paradise, and only Luis de Santángel can help him.

Within the dramatic story lies a subtle, insightful examination of the crisis of faith at the heart of the Spanish Inquisition. Irresolvable conflict rages within the conversos in By Fire, By Water, torn between the religion they left behind and the conversion meant to ensure their safety. In this story of love, God, faith, and torture, fifteenth-century Spain comes to dazzling, engrossing life.
Mitchell James Kaplan has certainly tackled a complicated subject with his first novel in By Fire, By Water. It deals primarily with the Spanish Inquisition that was being sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as it spread throughout Spain as they attempted to unify the kingdom of Spain. The story is being told through King Ferdinand's chancellor's eyes, Luis de Santangel, who was a converso himself. A converso was someone who was not trusted completely because of the fact they had once been a Jew, or had the 'misfortunate heritage' of descending from one. Another part of the story is being told from a Jewish woman's point of view, Judith, and these two stories ultimately intercept in the novel although they do not meet until later in the novel.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to Colon, the man who is known today as Christopher Columbus. Although he doesn't play as large of a part in the novel that I expected, it is the theme of conquest, greed and discovery that Colon represents in the story which attempts to come full circle by the end of the novel. A fact that is true is that Luis did help finance Colon's voyage with the three famous ships, but Colon is also portrayed as one who was willing to help some of the more unfortunate people at a time of need. The author did a fantastic job of presenting an accurate portrayal of the setting of Spain and the turmoil that the people faced as the inquisition spread deeper into Spain; raping, murdering and pillaging all those that stood in its way; all in the name of the Almighty God.

Luis de Santangel is portrayed as a simple man who silently wants peace, but does not voice his opinions too loudly. He is careful for his family's sake, as he has a son and a close cousin to care for. Yet Luis is struggling to make peace with his inner self, as he questions the faith of the Christianity that he has been brought up in, yet still has a fervor for the Jewish traditions within the secrets of his heredity. Luis and some of his peers began to hold secret meetings regarding these questions which eventually backfire on them all and send them into the very pits of hell within the Spanish Inquisition. Even being a Chancellor to the king does not save the tragic fate of Luis' friends and family members.

Judith's story is more simple and not as politically entrenched as Luis', as she is merely a pious woman struggling to take care of a nephew and an old man. Her character is constructed in such a way that makes the reader empathize with her: the embodiment of the plight of the Jewish people as they are ultimately expelled from Spain. When her brother dies, she is forced to learn the trade of silver-working and survives adequately enough with this as a Jewish woman in Granada. When Luis meets her, he is enchanted with her but can do nothing about it, since she is Jewish he can not afford to have any contact with her.

Eventually, life as Luis knows it twists into a horrible existence as the very crown that he works for has allowed his family to be taken from him and subjected to the tortures at the hands of the inquisitors. What comes forth is a heartfelt journey and struggle that ultimately leads Luis to Judith, but only temporarily, as he is also detained by the inquisitors. Who will survive and what will remain after the inquisition is what the reader is left to speculate on and what propels the story forward.

By Fire, By Water was a heart wrenching tale told with skill and details that makes me wonder at the tenacity of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Why were they so driven to unify Spain when it meant to force their subjects to their own religion or face torture and death? How could they see the righteousness in that? And the pope even sanctioned the inquisition. The romantic visage that I had been fed via Tudor fiction regarding Catherine of Aragon's faithful yet warrior mother has been obliterated by the horrors that Queen Isabella sanctioned all in the name of her religion. How I once admired the strength or fortitude that was exaggerated in my learning of Isabella is a shame to me now. This was just one part of the story, although a big one, as it became a sordid tale of survival of the fittest during a time of religious insanity. Conversos were given little choice as they battled with their beliefs versus survival. I am saddened that many millions of schoolchildren like myself are fed such grandiose ideas about King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella when they are taught about Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue as opposed to exploitation. There are many sides to the story, and on this one in particular the author does not expand upon, but leaves his reader grappling with the ideas of both the inquisition and the promise of a new world. A new world for whom? And who has rights to who, and why?

Mitchell James Kaplan has effectively written a powerful story that I will always remember. Although steeped with religious views and questions, it did not preach any, as it merely explored the depths of one's soul using the characters of Luis de Santangel and Judith Migdal. As a Catholic, I was deeply saddened to learn the truth of the persecution of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. The questions that were put forth were very thought provoking and I was intrigued once I understood the characters and their unique stories. The image of the King and Queen of Spain will never be the same again for me and I wonder if in the religious zeal of Isabella if she was perhaps touched by some of that madness that her own daughter Juana was said to have. For anyone interesting in the Spanish Inquisition, this is a take that is wonderfully told, for despite the harrowing subject matter, I felt better for reading it.