A Young Heroine in 15th Century Spain

The Last Song, by Eva Wiseman, (Random House of Canada, Ltd.), 234 pages, released October 14, 2014

Last week I wrote about Voyage of Strangers, a YA novel set during the era of the Spanish Inquisition and of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world. While written for a slightly younger audience (Random House recommends it for ages 10 and up), The Last Song also balances an engaging narrative with a frank depiction of the wrongs committed by the Inquisition.

Eva Wiseman’s The Last Song is told in the voice of fourteen year old Doña Isabel de Cardosa, daughter of the physician to their majesties, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Isabel has not realized that her parents are conversos—both from families that outwardly accepted Christianity several generations ago, but that continue to live privately with Jews. As violence against Jews increases, Isabel’s parents betroth her to the son of a powerful Spaniard with a long Christian lineage, hoping this will provide protection for her within the volatile political and religious climate.

At the same time that Isabel is betrothed she finds out that she is a Jew and also befriends a young Jewish man who serves as a foil to her less-than-charming fiance.  Then Isabella and Ferdinand order the expulsion of the Jews and Isabel begins learning painful lessons about the extent of friends’ and servants’ loyalties in this climate of fear.

Isabel is brave and resourceful individual who takes action to keep her family safe, both before and after her father is arrested by the Inquisition. Perhaps some of Isabel’s luck and planning pushes the limits of probability, but Wiseman makes sure her readers understand how exceptional Isabel’s case is. Wiseman offers other portraits of Jews, Moors, and slaves that convey the prejudice and violence of the time.

This book provides valuable context for Columbus’ voyages. While he is mentioned only in passing, readers see both the world he comes from and the impact of this age of conquest on Europe’s minority populations.

As a teenager interested in questions of justice—both present day and historical—I would have valued reading this book and spending time on the thinking it inspires. I expect this will be true for many young readers who are lucky enough to come across The Last Song.

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