The search for families both real and literary…

I like to look for the connections between things.  That might explain why I’m so conflict-averse, why my politics tend toward the liberal, and why I’ve never been able to be a “fundamentalist” anything.  If you see connections, you also see how we’re all connected, which in turn makes it harder to see the world in black and white.  Family, of course, is probably the ultimate, and most pervasive, connection.  It also is a central theme in the two books I recently read, one fiction and one non-fiction.

I don’t know how my husband does it, but year after year, birthday after Christmas after Mother’s Day after anniversary, for thirty-three years, he has consistently picked out books for me that are engaging, challenging, thoughtful, and exactly what I didn’t necessarily even know I wanted to read.  He did it again this year when he gave me for our anniversary the novel, Mosquitoland, by David Arnold (Viking, 2015).  He chose it because of its central theme, that of a road trip from Mississippi to Cleveland undertaken by sixteen year old protagonist, Mim, in an effort to reach her ill mother.  Since I was also on a road trip (see my August 19 post) with my high school BFF, he thought I would enjoy the correlation.

As it turns out, the book and my trip had virtually nothing in common, except perhaps for the occasional search for a meal or motel in a strange town.  That said, I loved this quirky novel and its characters.  Arnold successfully explores the ways in which families splinter and reform, the friendships that can also serve as a sort of surrogate family, and the dynamics of mental illness in these processes.  I’ve often thought that if I had a writing talent that tended toward fiction, the last issue in particular would be one that I would tackle.  But since I don’t, I look for thoughtful, compassionate, and truthful representations in my reading.  If I Fall, If I Die, by Michael Christie (see April 2015) did a good job of exploring the effects of a parent’s illness on their child.  Mosquitoland looks at how a child’s potential diagnosis influences parental dynamics.  All the characters here have flaws, but they’re all just trying to do their best with the information they have, and this is probably the trait I most like and appreciate about the book.  The writing is funny and engaging, and if some of the situations are slightly unbelievable, oh well, it’s fiction!  This will probably end up being considered a Young Adult book, there is a definite “coming of age” feel to it, but that shouldn’t stop anyone looking for a fun, intelligent read to give it a try.

After finishing Mosquitoland, I started in on a book my sister had passed on to me, The Forgetting River, by New York Times reporter, Doreen Carvajal (Penguin Group, 2012).  Subtitled A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition, this tome narrates the author’s search for her family’s roots in the Spanish “Conversos” who left Spain for Latin American after 1492.  “Converso” refers to Jews who, either voluntarily or under extreme duress, converted to Christianity.  The Inquisition was primarily formed in Spain because of the belief, one that endured for centuries, that these “New Christians” hadn’t really converted, and were in fact secretly practicing Judaism. The Inquisition followed these suspicions to the New World, where trials and subsequent executions in Mexico involved a Carvajal family that may, or may not, have been ancestors of the author.

I won’t reveal what Carvajal ultimately uncovers in her search for her family’s lost or hidden identity, since the book reads a bit like a mystery in that regard.  I do wonder if a reader not as immersed in Spanish medieval and early modern history as I am would be able to follow her somewhat disjointed journey and observations.  She is at her best when she lets the trained and obviously successful journalist side of her take command of the writing.  Her attempts at literary prose, in contrast, feel somewhat forced, contrived, perhaps even a touch histrionic.

There is much that I enjoyed remembering and “re-experiencing” in this volume (minus the Inquisition parts, of course), and I also learned a bit.  For example, while I knew that saetas, the spontaneous songs that burst out along the path of processions during Easter Holy Week observances, were unique to Andalucia, in southern Spain, Carvajal’s speculation that they have their origins in the Jewish Kol Nidre prayers, and were a way for secret Jews to express their anguish at their inability to practice their religion, was a revelation to me.  I also enjoyed her interpretations of various church retablos (altar paintings), and her assertion that many contained veiled symbolic condemnations of the Christian authorities who insisted on persecuting Jews even after they had converted to Catholicism.

My sister loves doing genealogical research, and speculates based on a few names she has found in our family tree that we have our own Jewish forbears. I think that’s possible, since I know from studying history that there tends to be more interconnection than we could possibly imagine.  While I don’t share her patience for sifting through census reports, or birth, death, and marriage certificates, I understand and admire that need we all have at some level to connect with our families, both current and past.


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