This beautifully written historical fiction by Alice Hoffman tells the story of Jews in the island of St. Thomas in the 1800’s. Sprinkled with mystical and religious customs; this richly evocative novel is mostly a rewarding read. The story revolves around Rachel and her marriages along with her children during the first half of the book. Her son Jacobo/Camille becomes more a focus in the second half. He talks about going to a non-Jewish school with children of color. Jacobo is introduced to the concept of Jesus. The idea of God having a son made God seemed more human. He talks about being a disbeliever surrounded by believers.
Another major part of the novel is the story of Rachel’s black friend Jestine. Jestine falls in love with a cousin of Rachel named Aaron and due to their interracial status cannot marry. Their out of wedlock daughter Lydia is kidnapped by Aaron and taken to Paris where he marries a Jewish woman. Lydia is never told of her adoption status. Lydia marries a Jewish man and has many children. When Lydia’s mother’s identity is revealed, she tells her husband and he is unaffected by the revelation that his wife is of mixed race and not officially Jewish. It is bewildering that Lydia isn’t concerned that her children wouldn’t be considered Jewish. To be Jewish your mother must of the Jewish faith. It’s odd that the author only deals with the implication of the children’s religion much later in the novel.
Towards the last 1/3 of the book there is an episodic quality that dilutes some of the goodwill that Alice Hoffman had previously brought to the book. I was also frustrated that when Justine and Lydia reconnect there isn’t an enormous emotional outburst. Some of the flowery mystical writing begins to annoy. Yet just when you feel the mojo is gone, there will be the inclusion of a fascinating custom. When one of Rachel’s daughters dies, they have to pay for mourners since they don’t have the required ten men. After the funeral, the daughter’s linens were burned. They also burned herbs in an earthenware dish and threw open all the windows to let the spirit of the daughter go.
The afterward provides an additional ending for those looking for further historical context.