The Jews You May Not Know
Herman Melville observed ‘to write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme’ and that is what we have with Marcia Fine’s Hidden Ones (L ’Image Press, 2017).
In the world of historical fiction, Marcia Fine is a multi-award-winning author of inspiring first-rate commentary on Jewish history. She has seven novels to her name, but her latest book Hidden Ones shows the reader she is at the top of her game.
She has combined history, fiction, romance and intrigue with the contagious enthusiasm of a researcher who has discovered gold, and in my opinion, she has done just that with Hidden Ones. Her richly researched and sympathetic portrait of controversial Jewish figures disguised as Catholics in Mexico, along with the dramatic stories of the Inquisition in Mexico in the mid 1600’s comes along at a beleaguered period in Mexican history. Where brutality against those Judaizing reaches a dangerous and volatile significance, Fine begins to write.
The Jews living in Mexico during this period refused to not be Jewish. Although working daily to not enrage the church or show their identity, they maintained their pride and dignity. Their courageous resistance in and out of prison was defiant but hard for the church to prove. They believed they did not have to be what the Church wanted them to be, they just had to exist within it and around it, never revealing their identity. They were too fast in their actions to be caught by those who came by to check on them. They were always prepared for a search.
The story rocks back and forth between the strong grandmother imprisoned during most of the book and the impressionable granddaughter, imprisoned for a short time. Heroically, these two women carry the story as life moves from marriage to childbirth, and from death to heartache. Life for them is usually in chaos with the Church’s eye always on the suspected Jews.
While front and center, this Jewish family stands for peace and unity, love, equality, and justice at the very least. Often risking everything for what they believe, they know who they are.
This work is likely to be controversial with the author’s portrayal of the Inquisition in Mexico and the Catholic Church at that time, but be assured, her research is solid, and easily documented, despite showing the dark side of Catholicism. She teaches us much about orthodox Jews and their faith with the rituals and celebrations they adhere to in this dire situation. There are surprises and plenty of suspense when the Jews are confronted, but the story remains true to their destiny.
The book is an epic tale of Jewish and Mexican history most people are unaware of but will find intriguing. Much in the pages will be familiar if you have some knowledge of the Jewish culture, but even the familiar may be glimpsed from a different perspective when you factor in the Mexican culture, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition in Mexico in the 1600’s.
Fine’s fluent prose makes this a page turner, it’s narrative reads like a double-novel with two strong women as protagonists. It’s a suspenseful tale with a cast of vivid characters in three generations, plus other family members needed to fulfill the story. These characters prevail throughout the years and help define a brilliantly innovative young woman with the goal for her life of seeking the fairy tale of meeting her prince charming despite incredible odds.
On a triumphant note, Fine believes her main characters, transcend their culture. She never white-washes their life, but shows us how they overcome prejudices and face down their accusers. These courageous Jews generously gave us this important history, so it could be found, written about, and read about centuries later.
Fine presents a series of interlinking stories in a structural decision that allows her characters to inhabit their own narrative and give accent to the lives they intersect with, including and the others they run parallel with too. These connections to Jews and Mexicans are close and clear as the story progresses. Fine allows us to see whose actions directly lead to more action before pivoting us to another scene.
This novel is divided into four parts. Taking us though many years of a family history; younger days; entanglements, schemes, happy times, mystery, prison, death and rejoicing. Her narrative technique takes us though the relationships of family and friends, commencing with stories that pull us further and further from where we started and where we expected to go.
After passing through all these stories of family history and appreciating Fine’s fight to preserve their legacy, I came to appreciate a novel of excellence in storytelling extensive research. It was a huge pleasure to finish this book. This work enlightened me to Fine’s sincere and engaging journey into historical fiction. She wrote with a rare insight into Jewish heroines I would never find in history books. It’s been quite a revelation to read her story of Jews hiding in Mexico during the Inquisition.