Voyage of Strangers, by Elizabeth Zelvin, (Lake Union Publishing), 270 pages, released September 30, 2014
Elizabeth Zevin’s YA offering, Voyage of Strangers, is essentially a problem novel. But, what problems!: the inquisition, the conquest and forced conversion of Caribbean natives, and slavery.
Set during the time of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world, Voyage of Strangers tells the story of siblings Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend, Hutia, who Diego meets during Columbus’ first voyage. Diego and Rachel come from a family of recursos: Jews who publicly live as Christians, but who continue to practice their faith in private.
Diego returns from the first voyage determined to find a way to transfer his sister from their aunt’s house in Spain to Firenzi, Italy, where the rest of their family have gone to live. While in Spain, they witness the worst of the inquisition, both the daily slurs and lies of anti-Semitism and the burnings of Jews that serve as a form of pubic entertainment, as well as a reminder of the power of the Christian church.
Rachel would prefer to remain with her brother and, managing to pass herself off as a boy, accompanies him on the next voyage. Once in the “Indies,” both witness the violence of the conquest, including rape, murder, torture, and forced labor. Rachel and Hutia fall in love, which is not just problematic, but life-threatening given their situations.
This book isn’t an easy read. It represents an admirable attempt to wrestle with the past in a way that is appropriate for young adult readers, but that doesn’t gloss over the violence and bigotry of the time. It’s the kind of volume that may lead readers on to other books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a richer understanding of our own hemisphere’s history.