Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Review: The Apprentice's Masterpiece

The Apprentice's Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain by Melanie Little. (Grades 8+)

Fifteenth century. Spain. Christians live side by side with Jews and Muslims. Then Queen Isabella takes the throne and starts her quest to Christianize all of Spain. Suddenly, no one is safe. Jews are forced to convert to Christianity and even after they convert they are still suspect. Jews and Muslims must wear special patches on their clothes indicating their religion. Neighbors are encouraged to spy on neighbors. You could be reported for eating meat on a Friday, for wearing clean clothes at the end of the week, for avoiding pork...

Ramon and his family are conversos. Generations ago they were Jews, but they have since converted to Christianity. They are still suspect. Ramon is a scribe who works with his father copying books and other documents for anyone who will pay. Work is becoming more and more scarce as customers no longer want to associate with conversos (you could be reported for that). Enter Amir.

Amir is a Muslim slave given to Ramon's father as a gift. Instantly Ramon is jealous. Ramon's and Amir's stories will come together as the Inquisition takes both their lives in vastly different directions.

The Apprentice's Masterpiece is a novel in verse that gives a really interesting look at medieval Spain through the eyes of two different cultures. I knew a bit about the Inquisition before, but these poems really bring it to life. People were burned alive for not confessing to a crime as small as seeing a Jewish doctor. If they did confess, it was marked down in their file and brought up in the case of future transgressions. Everyone was afraid.

The first part of the book is told from Ramon's point of view. Then we get Amir's point of view and at the end it goes back to Ramon. Ms. Little includes tons of historical detail that really brings the time and setting to life. If I have one criticism it's that occasionally the voices of Ramon and Amir slipped into more modern speech. I do understand the necessity of updating speech and making it accessible to today's readers, but in a few places it was a little jarring. That said, I really enjoyed the book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

Ms. Little includes a prologue and an epilogue that both contain background information on the time and place so that the reader has the information they need to start the story. She also includes some references in her acknowledgements (yay!).

You can read the prologue and two of the poems at the Annick LIVEbrary Blog. The post also contains a lesson plan using the book. For another great book about the Spanish Inquisition, check out Alice Hoffman's Incantation.