"[A] compelling mix of memoir and reporting." -O, The Oprah Magazine
“Unforgettable…Carvajal immerses herself and her readers in the ringing of Arcos’ ancient bells, the stories of its town historian, or cronista, and, most of all, the performance of haunting religious songs known as ‘saetas’ that may have originated as Jewish laments.”
– Chicago Tribune
“This book is an important addition to the record of Jewish history, not because it describes what history books already can tell us but because it evokes a personal sense of both loss and redemption growing out of that brutal history.”
– Kansas City Star
"Darkly poetic." -Christian Science Monitor
“Carvajal is a journalist who understands the nuance and beauty of travel writing. Combining this gift with this highly personal story, she creates a book that shimmers with enchantment, pulling the reader into her life with gentle tugs on the heartstrings. What she calls ‘hunting family ghosts’ will resonate with anyone who has ever felt out of place where they were and dreamed of finding another heritage just one layer beneath the one they had always accepted as the bedrock of their self-definition.”
-Jewish Book Council
"Doreen Carvajal has undertaken an extrordinary journey, and the story she tells is both personal and universal." -Anne Lamott
“A mesmerizing journey through time, across cultures and into one woman's rich personal history.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“A cohesive and engaging narrative of self-discovery and historical investigation.”
“Such an intriguing topic, and Carvajal…certainly knows how to write.”
“[Carvajal’s] exploration reveals the fascinating legacy of the Jewish conversos…Her experiences not only reflect a heartfelt attempt to recapture a lost identity but also serve as a launching point for a wider exploration of the repercussions of the Inquisition.”
About the Author
Doreen Carvajal is a Paris-based reporter for the The New York Times and a senior writer for the International Herald Tribune covering European issues. She has more than 25 years of journalism experience covering a broad range of subjects, from politics and immigration to book publishing and the media. She lives with her family near Paris.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
A personal journey to uncover the pastAug. 16 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Doreen Carvajal was raised Catholic, but like Madeleine Albright she began to suspect that her family used to be Jewish. In Albright's case this wasn't ancient history, her family's religious shift happened during WWII, but Carvajal had reason to believe her ancestors may have been forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition. Even more surprising to Carvajal, it wasn't until she was well into adulthood that she realized that while outwardly Catholic some older members of her family were quietly practicing aspects of Judaism or covertly honoring their Jewish heritage 500 years later. Long after the need for secrecy, this aspect of their lives still wasn't something anyone talked much about, and asking questions didn't always provide Carvajal with answers.
The Forgetting River chronicles Carvajal's quest to find out the truth about her family's history. To do so, she spent time in and then moved with her husband and daughter to the centuries-old town of Arcos de la Frontera in the Andalusian part of Spain. This tiny settlement's culture, music, art and residents are still deeply influenced by the past, and Carvajal's richly descriptive account of her life there suggests an ambiance of sunny skies and ancient stones. While she was looking for clues to her family's history Carvajal found lingering traces of Spain's formerly substantial Jewish population and the Inquisition that tried to eliminate the practice of the Judaism within the country's borders.
The chapters of The Forgetting River are a series of related articles that skip around in time but slowly build their case. The concluding piece of information that finally convinced Carvajal of the truth of her family's Jewish heritage seems arbitrary, and more like a device to bring the narrative to a close than an incontrovertible bit of evidence, but this was Carvajal's personal journey so what finally tipped the scales for her may be based on something more primal than logic. On the whole this is a fascinating, thought provoking book--part history, part travelogue, part family memoir, part social commentary.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
A New Look at an Old ProblemAug. 16 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Beautiful, well-paced writing takes the reader on a curious journey to the town of Arcos de la Frontera in Spain where journalist Doreen Carvajal decides to live while researching what she suspects are the true roots of her family. Although raised Catholic, Carvajal, whose family ended up in California via ancestors who emigrated to Cuba and later, Costa Rica, suspects from talking to relatives and examining family genealogy that her background is most likely tied to Jews in Spain during the Inquisition era.
Carvajal isn't the first Catholic writer to discover Jewish roots, but in other genealogical discoveries, the writers' families haven't been Catholic for more than a few decades. In Carvajal's case, she is looking at Jewish roots that go back to the 1400s in Spain. This is tough work, difficult genealogy to research, and so remote in time that Carvajal depends a lot on clues more subtle than birth certificates and religious documents.
There is a definite spirituality to Carvajal's work. The first chapter of her book describes the bell ringing in Arcos de la Frontera in a quiet, poetic way that allows the reader to hear the bells in the rhythm of the words. Carvajal is easy to read; she makes history accessible, entertains the reader with pages that are delivered like a travelogue, and muses out loud on paper about her family and where they came from, how they got there, and how she can get back to the beginnings of her clan.
Since Jews were expelled from Spain in the later 1400s and the Inquisition forced any remaining Jews or Muslims to convert to Christianity, Carvajal writes a great deal about people who led dual lives, secret lives, or lives forced upon them by others. She weaves stories about the people she meets in her Andalusian town, what people know, and what they tell her. She walks the streets, discovers the sites of old synagogues, and meets like-minded people interested in her quest.
Although Carvajal writes about members of her family who kept extensive family genealogies, she does not include any family history charts in her book. This leaves anyone with a genealogical bent a bit frustrated. Likewise, she does not describe lengthy times spent in dusty archives looking for documents that may or may not be there. Carvajal's book is about a very different kind of search, one that has more to do with the reading and relating of history and to the ability of an individual to pick up on very subtle signs of customs within the family that point to a religious past quite different from the one they publicly led.
Music plays an important - almost mystical - role in Carvajal's book as do symbols of all sorts. She analyzes the perhaps secret meanings behind paintings, strokes buildings, and looks into her own soul and the souls of others. Above all, she describes what Jews faced in Spain during the Inquisition in a way that is never boring. One learns a great deal about the history of the Sephardic Jews from this area as well as about the conversos who were made to convert to Christianity. Her section on the chuetas of the island of Mallorca is especially revealing.
The Forgetting River is part memoir, part travelogue, part family history and genealogy, and part religious and world history. Carvajal does a marvelous job blending these genres into one book, giving all of us a new look at an old problem. No one can finish reading this book without marveling at the personal and emotional journey Carvajal took in order to share this story with us.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Inticing, but oddly put togetherSept. 16 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a book that I really wanted to love. The first few chapters drew me in very quickly and I was intrigued by the subject.
Doreen Carvajal, is a journalist and it shows with this book, which reads as individual columns in a series. My problem with this is that single threads of the book are separated from each other by other threads. The chapters are mostly quite short and it's disrupting to become interested in something only for it to end abruptly and the subject to pick back up in three chapters.
The chapters could have easily been consolidated into three or four main sections of the book, and I can only imagine that the author wanted it to feel more like her own journey. This makes for a very unsatisfying book though, and if I hadn't received this to review I don't think I would have finished, to be honest (and I rarely put down a book without finishing it). Every time I felt myself start to enjoy the book again the chapter would end and the moment, the focus, would be broken.
There are also a few chapters toward the end which really don't have anything to do with the book's subject. They seem to be stories she just wanted to tell and then sort of vaguely related to her subject at the end of each story. They were yet another barrier between the reader and any sort of conclusion.
Carvajal's writting is very good, her interpretations seem valid, her instincts are good, and the subject is fascinating. It is only the organization of this book which allows all of those positive aspects to falter. While this aspect doesn't seem to have bothered other reviewers it meant I couldn't fully immerse myself in the book.
While reading "The Forgetting River," I immediately identified with author Doreen Carvajal's path of discovery in searching for Sephardic ancestry. She describes her quest through historical records, baptism, marriage and death records, old letters, DNA testing--which parallels the journey my cousins and I are traveling. Most of us, of course, cannot afford to actually pack up and live in our ancestral homeland, but reading about Doreen's experiences are a definite encouragement to do so. While some readers may not like Doreen's meandering approach, I found that her writing style reinforces the twists and turns that ancestral research actually takes. Some ancestors are easier to find than others; some of them may never be found. Her revelation that the University of California at Berkeley has the largest collection of Mexican Inquisition records outside of Mexico was stunning, and I now intend to visit the Bancroft Liberary. While in that library, she learned about Blas de Magallanes--which took my breath away--as Magallanes is a family name I recently uncovered myself. As a cousin often says, "there are no coincidences," and those of us in the family who are doing family research have found that to be absolutely true. Throughout her book, Doreen excellently describes such coincidences, how a single clue can lead to a larger discovery, and how she is driven to find out more and more information. Of course, as sometimes happens, those clues can also result in frustration. Particularly, I enjoyed Doreen's tidbits about her relationships with the people in Arcos de la Frontera, and her ambivalence about the larger issue of possible conversion to Judaism. Her book is a gem, and on finishing it, I did not put it down, but turned to the first page to read the whole book a second time. In terms of describing one woman's search for her familial roots, Doreen Carvajal's book is a classic.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
well written, interesting historyAug. 17 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
I enjoyed this book. Well written. to be expected from a NYT reporter. Very interesting history, personal and otherwise-- made me think about how we assume we know who we are, and how much those assumptions shape our view of ourselves. Also gorgeous descriptions of place and people. Highly recommend.