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Author interview'Loma is my own ancestor, a girl with grit and perseverance'

Bestselling author’s new YA novel stars teenage Sephardic Jew under Inquisition

‘Ella Enchanted’ author Gail Carson Levine takes readers to late 15th century Spain, where a Jewish girl and her prominent family confront religious persecution and face expulsion

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'The Capitulation of Granada'  (Muhammad XII surrenders to Ferdinand and Isabella), painted by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz, 1882 (Public domain via Wikicommons)
'The Capitulation of Granada' (Muhammad XII surrenders to Ferdinand and Isabella), painted by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz, 1882 (Public domain via Wikicommons)

Gail Carson Levine has transported young readers to fantasy realms for decades with her popular novels. Now, the prolific author best known for her Newbery Medal-winning “Ella Enchanted,” goes to a very real place and time in her latest book.

Set during the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” is Levine’s 25th book for children, and her second historical young adult novel. It was a highly personal book for Levine to write, and one that was a long time in coming.

“It took me a long time to tackle the subject. I worried about how little I knew about it,” the author told The Times of Israel in a recent video interview from her home north of New York City.

Levine, 72, had wanted to write something related to her father David Carasso’s Sephardic heritage, but she had little to go on. All she knew was that her father had immigrated as child with his family to New York from Salonika, which was within Ottoman Turkey when he was born in 1912, but was later annexed by Greece and became known as Thessalonki. The 50,000-strong Jewish community of Salonika was later almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust.

Gail Carson Levine’s father David Carasso (front) with his brother c. 1915-1916, either in Salonika or shortly after their arrival in New York. (Courtesy)

Levine eventually learned that her family must have immigrated to Turkey from the kingdom of Naples, where they had temporarily found safe harbor after being expelled from Spain.

Both of Carasso’s parents died when he was very young, and he was placed in New York’s Hebrew Orphan Society (the inspiration for the author’s first historical young adult novel, “Dave at Night.”) Growing up away from family in a mainly Ashkenazi Jewish environment at the orphanage, Levine’s father lost touch with his Sephardic heritage. He also changed his name to the more American sounding Carson.

“My mother came from an Ashkenazi family, and my parents didn’t keep many Jewish traditions — and there was definitely no Sephardic cooking at home,” the author noted.

“My father’s Sephardic background was just this exotic fact. I knew his ancestors were part of this huge, terrible historical event — but that was it,” she added.

‘A Ceiling Made of Eggshells’ by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins)

In “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells,” Levine creates a sort of alter ego in her protagonist, a girl named Paloma (Loma) Corcia, who is from a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Alcalá de Henares (located just outside modern-day Madrid).

“One of the notions that stayed with me as I wrote this book is that Loma is my own ancestor, a girl with the grit and perseverance to get through terrible times. I believe that all of us, Jewish or not, in ancient or more recent history, have forebears whose survival was uncertain and who struggled and made it against all odds,” Levine writes in the epilogue to the novel.

Not unusual for Levine’s protagonists, Loma is a strong female character. After her grandmother and three of her siblings die from the plague in 1483, Loma’s grandfather Don Joseph Corcia (whom she calls Belo, short for abuelo, or grandfather in Spanish), takes note of her special qualities. Loma has mathematical abilities, takes an interest in the poetry and Jewish texts he reads and writes, and is intelligent and perceptive. Loma reminds Belo of his late wife, and as head of the family, he decides that Loma should be his companion and helper.

This means not only spending time with Belo in his study when she would rather be outside frolicking with her beloved younger siblings and nieces and nephews, but also accompanying Belo and his son Asher (Loma’s father) on business trips around the country. As leaders of the Jewish community in Spain, the Corcias work hard to finance the monarchy of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and protect Jews from the horrors of the Inquisition. (In the epilogue, Levine notes that Belo is modeled on Isaac Abravanel, a great Sephardic courtier, financier and philosopher.)

The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. Etching. (Wellcome Library, London. Creative Commons licence CC BY 4.0 via Wikicommons)

Loma yearns to marry soon after becoming bat mitzvah at age 12, as all the girls in the community do. However, this is not to be expected because of her loyalty to her grandfather. By being at Belo’s side for years, she becomes politically savvy and resourceful. Loma even has audiences with Ferdinand, Isabella, and their daughter Isabella, known as the Infanta — all of whom take a liking to her and try to convince her to convert to Christianity. The Grand Inquisitor Torquemada makes an appearance and comes off as more threatening.

The action in “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” picks up with the Edict of Expulsion (the Alhambra Decree) issued on March 31, 1492. According to the edict, all practicing Jews were to leave Spain by July 31 of that year. Everything that Jews had done for Spain and its leaders was not enough to prevent their expulsion for fear that they would influence those Jews who had converted to Christianity to revert to Jewish practices.

Deputation of Jews before Ferdinand and Isabella, Etching 1869. (Library of Congress / Public domain via Wikicommons)

“I needed to develop drama leading up to the decree, so for the first part of the book I focused on developing the personalities in Loma’s family, as well as the tensions among them,” Levine noted.

The author draws the reader in by creating an authentic and compelling atmosphere, the result of several years of intense research. She studied up not only on the Jews of Sepharad, but also on the minutiae of everyday life in Spain during the period. (She shares a partial bibliography on her website.)

Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada
(Public domain via Wikicommons)

“I was scratching around everywhere for information, and I was fortunate to have Dr. Jane Gerber [a professor emeritus of Jewish studies at the City University of New York and an expert on Sephardic Jewry] guiding my reading and research,” Levine said.

One book Levine said she was especially glad she read despite its difficulty was “The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain” by Haim Beinart.

“It’s a classic on the subject and a doorstopper of a book,” she said of the more than 600-page tome.

“It’s full of detail about court cases and financial records. It appears to be dry reading, but it is through this material that the tragedy of the expulsion and everything related to it is revealed,” Levine said.

“A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” may be a YA novel with characteristically  short sentences, but it is sophisticated — and not only in its vocabulary (“I don’t believe in dumbing things down for kids,” the author said). True to its historical time and place, the book includes challenging topics such as death and injury from war, torture, disease, kidnapping, and slavery. There’s also emotional blackmail and betrayal, and religious coercion.

Gail Carson Levine (Courtesy)

“This is history. I didn’t know to tell it any other way. And based on my own experience as a young reader and knowing that I was unfazed by anything, I think a lot of kids will be less troubled by this book than adults will be,” Levine said.

Levine said that she believes it’s a writer’s job to make her character suffer, but admits that Loma has it worse than most.

“However, she rises to the life given her. We have to keep in mind that she isn’t a 21st century girl,” the author said.

By immersing herself in the medieval history of her patrilineal ancestors, Levine said she has ended up feeling more Jewish. Creating Loma and her world sparked her to read more about Jewish history in general, and also to try cooking some of the Sephardic recipes she references in her book.

Levine is already at work on her next YA novel. She said that writing helps her reconnect with the voracious reader she was as a child. While fortunate to have enjoyed a huge audience for her work over the years, she claimed she writes for herself first and foremost. With “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells,” this is clearly truer than ever.

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