Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Review: The Walls of Cartagena

I recently signed up for the "Vine" program which provides free advance copies of books to regular reviewers in an attempt to generate buzz for these new titles immediately upon release. They send you a regular newsletter via email with books (and other items) on it that you can request for review. From my perspective, about 90% of the stuff on there is junk--or at least supremely uninteresting. However, this book, The Walls of Cartagena, caught my eye.

Calepino is a 13-year-old Black boy in Cartagena. Life is hard in this slave-trading city, but Calepino has a talent for languages and works with Father Pedro and Sacabuche as an interpreter in the fetid holds of the arriving slave ships. In the course of his duties, Calepino becomes attached to two new arrivals from Africa--Mara and her young son Tomi. But when Mara and Tomi are sold to a cruel master, Calepino decides he must take action to save them.

The Walls of Cartagena is an entertaining little book meant for younger readers, age 10-12. The story is uncomplicated, the characters are generally sympathetic. There are numerous charming illustrations throughout. I appreciated the generally positive portrayal of the Catholic priest, Father Pedro, who is in reality Saint Peter Claver. The author obviously put a great deal of research into the story and this comes through in the numerous little details of life in 17th century New Spain which adorn the story. The writing is elegant and flows well. A good reader could easily devour this little story in one or two sittings.

My main criticisms of the book center around the author's incomplete and sometimes inaccurate overall historical perspective. While the author correctly examines the horrors of the slave trade, she also engages in a bit of historical hyperbole with regard to the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition. One character, Dr. Lopez, is presented as being persecuted by the Inquisition because he is a Jew. The author does not explain that Jews were never targeted by the Inquisition, but only those who feigned a conversion to Catholicism to maintain wealth or status within Spain or her colonies. Indeed, the Inquisitional courts of the 17th century were often considerably more lenient than comparable secular courts in other European kingdoms of the time.

The author also seems to follow the conventional wisdom with regard to the modern fable that the Catholic Church suppressed intellectual curiosity and exploration. There's a mildly tedious aside where Dr. Lopez introduces Calepino to the "forbidden" works of Galileo, who, the author tells us, "was under house arrest in Italy for asserting that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe." Anyone familiar with the history of this incident knows that this was not the reason Galileo was confined. Indeed, Copernicus had made this exact same claim decades before Galileo and suffered no such punishments. Galileo's contentions with the Church were much more personal than scientific.

Finally, I disliked how the author made the heroic rescues in the story only possible by the blatant telling of untruths by the major characters, including St. Peter Claver. This struck me as little more than a plot device as such actions were dramatically out of character for most 17th century Jesuits, who were often paragons of courage when it came to telling the truth to power. Many would have put their own heads on the chopping block before resorting to such dishonest expedients.

Setting aside these flaws, I found The Walls of Cartagena to be an enjoyable read and one which I would definitely read with my own kids as an intro to life during the Renaissance. I would, however, read it along side books which told "the rest of the story" such as The Outlaws of Ravenhurst or Angels in Iron.

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