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Incantation    by Alice Hoffman order for
by Alice Hoffman
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Alice Hoffman's lyrical account opens in 1500 Spain as its narrator tells us, 'I thought I knew the world. I thought I knew myself. I thought I knew my dearest friend. But I knew nothing at all.' The story is narrated by sixteen-year-old Estrella deMadrigal, who lives in the tiny village of Encaleflora. Her family has lived there for over five hundred years. Her grandfather Jose is a respected teacher and her older brother, the compassionate and kind Luis, is studying at the seminary to become a priest. Her best friend since they were babies is Catalina, who lives nearby. Estrella and Catalina are Christians.

The changes start with a smell of burning. Estrella and Catalina rush to the Plaza to find a bonfire of books, with an old Jewish man crying nearby. A hundred years before, most Jews had been forced to convert or flee, but some remained behind gates in the juderia. As soldiers abuse the old man, Estrella's mother Abra, who dyes and sells yarn, fiercely drags her away. That day, Estrella sees 'a monster set loose in our midst. The fire was his breath; the jeers all around were his snarls.' Sadly, this is only the beginning. Her grandfather tells his friends to stay away, 'You don't fight a monster with sticks and stones.'

Abra teaches Estrella many things - uses of herbs, healing skills, and about life, especially 'The power to think my own thoughts. The power to believe in myself.' Catalina plans to marry her handsome cousin Andres, who's lived with her family since his parents died of fever. But Estrella and Andres are attracted to each other. Catalina changes so that her friend feels that 'Now I was afraid not just of what I might say, but of what she might hear.' Then Estrella's neighbors, whose families converted to Christianity a century before, are arrested, accused of being Marranos, secret Jews.

Just as the feelings between Andres and Estrella grow, so does the monster in Encaleflora, to change this young woman's world overnight. In the process, she realizes why her grandmother has always been so hard on her, why nothing was ever good enough - and why her mother has told her of love that 'You think it should feel like honey, but instead it cuts like a knife.' Incantation is a powerful, heartrending coming of age story, centered on a young heroine whose strength of character is formidable, and who adjures us at the end to 'Remember me.' How could we not?

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