Blood Secret, by Kathryn Lasky (Harper Teen, 2006, YA, 304 pages)
Jerry spent her childhood following her carefree mother from one music festival to the next...lying alone at night while her mother "visited" other campers. But when she was eight, her mother failed to come back to her, and she was found wandering alone on the edge of the campground. But Jerry couldn't give the police any useful information--she had stopped talking.
Forward a few years. Jerry is now 14, and a relative has been tracked down--an old aunt in New Mexico. Constanza has lived alone for years, a peaceful life supporting herself through her baking business. In the peace of her aunt's home, Jerry begins to speak again....and she discovers, alongside her own voice, the hidden voices of her ancestors when she opens the old trunk stashed away in the basement.
The things she finds--the ancient piece of bloodstained lace, the old letters, the battered doll--take her back as a witness to the persecution of centuries of her family. For Jerry's family were Spanish Jews, forced to hide their religion, and convert to Christianity or die during centuries of brutal cruelty. As Jerry lives fragments of their lives, she sees them tortured, exiled, and killed, yet still holding on to what they can of Judaism despite it all.
By the end of the book, her aunt Constanza is taking part in the timeslip as well, and the story ends with Constanza and Jerry reclaiming their Jewish heritage--the secrets of the past out in the light of day once more.
Jerry's experiences of the past do not involve her as a character at all--they are straight historical fiction, taking the reader from the massacre of 1391 to the repression of Judaism in the Spanish Mexico in the colonial era. These chapters are gripping, and an excellent introduction to an aspect of history not often covered in children's books. The characters are compelling, the details absorbing, and the stories harrowing. However, I didn't particularly care for the section that was told from the perspective of an indigenous Mesoamerican woman, married to a secret Jew--I didn't find Lasky's voice for this woman convincing.
The parallel between Jerry finding her own voice again, and the recovery of the lost stories of her family, is clear, but the focus of the book shifts increasingly to the past, and the modern part of the story becomes completely overshadowed. The ending drives this home--I found it hard to accept that Constanza, an old woman and devout Catholic, could suddenly embrace her long-lost Jewish heritage without batting an eye. I would have appreciated more subtlety here, more of the modern characters in the present working through what they have discovered, instead of being swept up so fully by their magical experiences that they behave in what seemed to me an over-simplified way.
Still, it's a fascinating story, and I'm all in favor of learning about history through well-written fiction, so I'm happy to have read it.