Incantation by Alice Hoffman

What do you do when the whole world turns against you?

Estrella de Madrigal has a good life. The beautiful daughter of a successful businessman, she is well on her way to a good marriage when trouble comes to her home town of Encaleflora, Spain. The year is 1500, a new age has dawned. But when an ancient hatred rears it’s head, Estrella finds her family is the target. The Inquisition has come to Encaleflora, looking for Jews posing as Christians. Estrella does not know it, but her family is secretly Jewish.

Incantation by Alice Hoffman is a problematic novel. The opening sections are entertaining, if not compelling, but they contain some things that are hard to swallow. All Jews were expelled from Spain or forced to convert in 1492, the money confiscated from them was used to finance Columbus’s first voyage to America, so how can there be an openly Jewish community like the one Hoffman describes in 1500? Estrella’s family has made their Jewish faith a secret, but their small town contains both a Jewish and a Muslim ghetto. Then there is also the issue of Estrella’s pet pig. The neighbors all raise pigs for food, but Estrella’s family lets her keep one in the house as a pet. No one in her family will eat pork; they claim they prefer vegetable sausages instead. I’ve been around pigs. While they are an underestimated animal in general, I find it hard to accept that a girl in medieval Spain would keep one as a pet and let it sleep with her in an upstairs bedroom. And how is it that none of Estrella’s Christian friends ever offered her a sausage?

Halfway through the novel, things change. Once Estrella finds out that her family is Jewish, once the inquisition arrests her grandfather, the novel becomes a page turner. Any concerns I had about historical accuracy vanished, and I became engrossed in the plot. While there were no happy endings for Jewish families during the inquisition, and Ms. Hoffman’s novel remains true to the historical period, Incantation still manages to provide a hopeful ending for Estrella.

So I’m left with mixed feelings about Incantation. I did get a small set of books for my students to use in their book clubs at our school’s recent book fair. I expect their reviews will be mixed as well.


I first posted this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  In the years since I have had several groups of students read Incantation.  Their reviews have not been mixed.  They do not like it.  

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