Monday, March 24, 2014

Honoring the Nameless: An essay by Laurel Corona, author of The Mapmaker's Daughter

I've been celebrating small press titles here on Reading the Past, but March is even better known as Women's History Month.  Laurel Corona's historical novels incorporate a variety of settings: ancient Greece, Enlightenment-era Europe, 18th-century Venice, and now, with her new release The Mapmaker's Daughter, 1490s Spain during the expulsion of the Jews.  All of them tell the stories of important but little-known women.  In the following essay, Laurel explores this theme, revealing how her writing and research permit her and us to rediscover them and their contributions.


Honoring the Nameless
Laurel Corona

“Where do you get your ideas?” This is one of the questions historical novelists are most frequently asked. It always makes me smile because getting ideas is the easy part. Whenever I hear an amazing true story about someone in the past, my first thought is always whether there might be a novel in it. Still, to give up nearly everything but writing for a year or more of my life, I have to be more than intrigued. I have to be compelled. If I’m not burning to tell a story, it’s hard to see why you might burn to read it.

I know, to quote Diane Ackerman, that I am “coming down with a book” when I start working up a case of righteous indignation about a woman or women whose story greatly deserves to be honored, but has been completely forgotten. In The Four Seasons it’s the female orchestra and choir who were central to Vivaldi’s development as a composer. In Penelope's Daughter, it’s all the women who had fallen out of the story before Homer wrote it down. In Finding Emilie, it’s the brilliant Enlightenment mathematician and physicist Emilie du Ch√Ętelet, who usually receives no more than casual mention, if that, for having been Voltaire’s lover.

I knew from the time I became a historical novelist that I wanted to write about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Usually when I start with an idea this general, I flounder around for a while trying to find the characters and the story. In this case, it became apparent that several men in one of Iberia’s most prominent Jewish families were at the center of events in this terrible time, but I couldn’t find any colorful Jewish women around whom to build a plot, and since for me the central character(s) must be female, I couldn’t find my way into the story.

Early in my research I read a biography of Isaac Abravanel, one of these men, and a comment therein provided the passion that got me going on The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, March 2014). It said that Isaac had once remarked that he could not have hoped to accomplish all he had as a writer, philosopher, and leader of the Jewish community, if he hadn’t had such a strong and capable wife.

He never mentioned her name.

Oh, and the biography goes on to name his sons and provide information about each. It adds that he might have had a daughter, but it isn’t known for certain. With a loud ringing in my brain, I set out to give names and lives to the women of the Abravanel family.

I am not making them up. They are real people, but even so, they must be entirely reinvented. For all my novels, I begin to fill in the gaps by reading biographies of as many real-life characters in the book as possible. For The Mapmaker's Daughter, this included Henry the Navigator, Isaac Abravanel, Torquemada, and Isabella. I pored into every cranny of Dolores Sloan’s The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal, and spot read the relevant portions of many histories. I even found a book of men’s and women’s fashions from this era, and discovered that there were hundreds of names for slight variations not just of major items like dresses or jackets, but the details of sleeves, cuffs, collars, and bodices.

I was lucky with this book, because I found treasure in some unlikely places. For the National Jewish Book Award-winning cookbook A Drizzle of Honey, David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson combed the archives of the Inquisition to find references to food preparations used to convict actual women of “Judaizing.” It’s a wonderful mix of history, recipes, and honoring of women who held to their faith during horrific times, and my characters partake of several meals from these recipes. I have too, by the way!

I also hit gold with a book about folk medicine as still practiced among Sephardic women of Romania and the Middle East. This was the closest I could get to knowledge of the practices at the time of my book, but since these incantations and potions are viewed as a timeless part of Sephardic history, I used them extensively to give a feel for the state of medicine at the time, and the superstitions that governed so much of medieval life.

A true story of the expulsion of the Jews, or any other piece of history, cannot be truthfully and accurately told without including the women, and in the absence of facts we have to substitute the twin powers of research and imagination. Women have never just been standing by, and we need to stop allowing history to be told that way.

I listen to the whispered voices of the forgotten women of the past, and words pour through my fingers onto the screen. Somewhere over my shoulder comes a disembodied sigh of relief that someone is finally listening. Historical fiction is in some cases the only way women have to reclaim our past, and I am thrilled to be part of that.



A sweeping novel of 15th-century Spain explores the forgotten women of the Spanish Inquisition

In 1492, Amalia Riba sits in an empty room, waiting for soldiers to take her away. A converso forced to hide her religion from the outside world, She is the last in a long line of Jewish mapmakers, whose services to the court were so valuable that their religion had been tolerated by Muslims and Christians alike.

But times have changed. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquer Granada, the last holdout of Muslim rule in Spain, they issue an order expelling all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. As Amalia looks back on her eventful life, we witness history in the making—the bustling court of Henry the Navigator, great discoveries in science and art, the fall of Muslim Granada, the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. And we watch as Amalia decides whether to relinquish what’s left of her true self, or risk her life preserving it.

Exploring an under-published period in history, The Mapmaker’s Daughter is a sweeping saga of faith, family and identity that shows how the past shapes our map of life.


Laurel Corona is the author of three historical novels, including Finding Emilie (Gallery Books, 2011), which won the 2012 Theodore S. Geisel Award for Book of the Year, San Diego Book Awards. She has taught at San Diego State University, the University of California at San Diego, and San Diego City College, where she is a professor of English and Humanities.

Corona is a member of the Brandeis National Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Hadassah. She has written over a dozen nonfiction Young Adult books for school library programs, primarily on Jewish topics. She lives in San Diego. Website:

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:45 AM

    I wonder what the book about Romanian etc. folk arts was - ? I'll check her website.

    Sarah OL