Friday, August 15, 2014

Hidden Lives

In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, Laurel Corona notes that historical fiction is “the second arm” where women’s history is concerned. What she means—and I hope you will listen to the interview, where we go into this and other topics in much greater depth—is that historical sources often obscure the reality of women’s lives. For much of history, the focus has been on battles and conquest and court politics, areas traditionally dominated by men. Women, even when they succeed in this arena—Empress Wu of China is a good example—tend to be portrayed from a male perspective, as either harridans or sirens. Outside this arena, they are simply ignored: nameless creatures playing supporting roles by washing shirts, darning socks, raising children, and keeping the home fires burning—no matter that tending those home fires without help amid a society in chaos demands courage, intellect, and resourcefulness. (For more on this topic, see my series of posts that began with “Women of Steel” and ended with “Taking the Veil.”)

One antidote to this documentary silence is historical fiction. The discipline of women’s history has come a long way in the last four decades, and much more information is available about the general conditions of women’s lives in the past. But to capture the reality of an individual life, an informed imagination is often the best approach—or if not the best, a valid approach. Laurel Corona has tackled this task in four novels set in different eras and places: The Four Seasons, Penelope’s Daughter, Finding Emilie, and The Mapmaker’s Daughter. The results are impressive. So listen to the interview. Read some of her books. You won’t be disappointed.

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.

In North America, the year 1492 is inextricably linked to Columbus’s discovery of the West Indies, funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But in Spain itself, the year brought two events that at the time appeared more vital to the health and spiritual purity of the kingdom: the conquest of Granada from the last Muslim rulers of Andalusia, and the expulsion of the Jews whose families had inhabited Iberia since the height of the Roman Empire. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) tells the story of Amalia Riba—child of a converso family whose father embraces Christianity to save his wife and children and whose mother pays lip service to the new religion even as she teaches her daughters to observe Jewish ritual in secret.

During Amalia’s long and varied life, she travels from her childhood home in Sevilla to Portugal and to Castile, to Granada and to Valencia—accompanied by the exquisitely decorated atlas painted by her great-grandfather and charting her course between security and identity. With a sure hand, Laurel Corona explores the importance of choice, the prices paid for resistance and assimilation, and the overlapping of identity and community, especially in the lives of women. Along the way, she makes a powerful case for the value of diversity—not only in the past but in the present.

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