The Poetry of Secrets

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
The Poetry of Secrets Book Poster Image
Jewish persecution in medieval Spain dominates teen romance.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

As a piece of historical fiction, this one is packed with cultural and factual information. Spanish, Latin, and Hebrew words are sprinkled generously throughout the text, giving the story context. Dates, locations, and historically accurate characters form the basis of the plot. (Torquemada, a key figure in the Spanish Inquisition comes to the town of Trujillo, where the family in the story lives.) Isabel learns about the Torah, the Megillah, and the Talmud, all of which are Hebrew texts not made available to women in her era. She reads works from Jewish poets and Arab poets who came before her. She learns of the history of Al-Andalusia, the Arab-ruled Spain before her time. Diego speaks of paints and painters (Veroccio, Michaelangelo), philosphers (Maimonides) and different ideologies. 

Positive Messages

Embrace people's differences -- everything that is made by the divine creator is good. Be proud of your family, your heritage. Survival takes sacrifice, but loved ones are worth sacrifice. Follow your passion in life. Enjoy every moment. Apologize when you've made mistakes. Stand up for your beliefs, even if it causes you pain. Honor your elders, for they hold many stories. Do not let other people tarnish your self-image. Learn as much as you can -- no one can take your education away from you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Isabel's grandmother, her Abuela, is an educated, "lettered" woman who teaches Isabel to read in Spanish and in Hebrew. She's Isabel's confidante and supporter. Isabel's father lets Isabel run aspects of his wine production business, such as the ledger and some of the client relations. Isabel is hungry to learn about her heritage, follow her artistic passions, and be loyal to her family.

Violence

Scenes in the story describing the Spanish Inquisition (active at the time) include burning people at the stake, torture, and death threats. The sights and sounds are not too gory, but when Isabel herself is injured at the hands of captors, her shoulder is broken. There are sword and knife fights with some blood, but not excessively descriptive. Self-harming behavior in the name of penitence.

Sex

Kissing, hand holding, desire to be "lain with," a barmaid's breasts "practically" fall out of her bodice in front of a young man's face. Diego has been known to "sample the flesh." 

Language

Damn. Puta.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Senor Perez is a vintner who has a tasting service in his home. Customers buy cases of wine. Drunken behavior from a townsman in a pub. Diego drinks wine regularly from his bota bag.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Poetry of Secrets is a historical novel, told from the perspective of a Jewish family who hides their faith and culture from the Inquisitors of 15th century Spain. Medieval themes of forced conversion, mass expulsion, torture, ghettoization of Jewish neighborhoods, and intolerance play prominently. Though not rendered in a gory manner, people are called swine, burned at the stake, and tortured because they are not part of the dominant culture. Mixed-blood people are said to "taint" the pure bloodline of the Christians, and their presence in society is sought to be exterminated. There is mention of "faking" Christianity and that it means nothing to a young man who does so because he identifies as a Jew. Teen characters kiss, long to "lay" with each other. The father in the story is a wine merchant, and wine and brandy are drunk in his home and commonly among everyday people.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byhillaryperelyubskiy April 1, 2021

Full of passion for art, poetry, and indepedence

A beautiful and personal way to learn about the Spanish Inquisition, a period that is often glossed over in history lessons. Isabel Perez's passion for ed... Continue reading

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What's the story?

In THE POETRY OF SECRETS by Cambria Gordon, Isabel Perez is a teen girl whose passion in life is writing poetry. Not only does she have to keep the fact that she is "lettered" and can read a secret, but also a bigger, more dangerous secret threatens the well-being of her family. As "New Christians," her parents are looked upon suspiciously by the townspeople of Trujillo, Spain, where they live. Though she, her parents, and her sister were baptized at birth, the "Old Christians" suspect them of being untrue to the church and judaizing at home in secret. This isn't incorrect -- the Perezes do practice Judaism in the sanctity of their home. But Isabel wonders if that is really so wrong. Why can't people believe what they want if they aren't hurting anyone else? Her secret lives are putting herself and her family in danger. When she meets a handsome stranger, she collects another secret, a burning desire to be seen as she is: as a young woman, poet, as a free spirit, and as a Jew.

Is it any good?

Rich in historical and romantic detail, this story has pacing issues that keep it from being sublime. The Poetry of Secrets gives so much in historical accuracy, but it ends without the big fireworks that a romantic novel should provide. The focus on history feels distracting at times, if only because the romantic partners start out so lushly detailed. Their chance meeting tingles with possibility, and their journey is full of obstacles and twists. Their story is the heart of this story.

But there's more emphasis on the details of life in 15th century Spain and less in the weaving of the love story. Teens might feel a little let down by these priorities. But from a historical point of view, The Poetry of Secrets provides lovingly rendered cultural alleyways to follow. Jewish life in Medieval Spain is illuminated, complete with the conflicts, the toil, and the secrets.   

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about tolerance and how intolerance is shown in The Poetry of Secrets.  What does it mean to be tolerant of other cultures? How does it make you feel when you see intolerance in shows you watch -- or in the news? 

  • Isabel and her family act one way in public, but hide the rituals they perform at home, for fear of persecution. Is it possible to live in two worlds? How do we behave privately and publicly today?

  • Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, tells members of a congregation that they should not trust their neighbors. How have things changed? What do you see in the news?

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