The Forgetting River
by Doreen Carvajal

Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, 2012. ISBN 978-1-594-48739-2.
Reviewed by Sharon Wildwind
Posted on 10/02/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

There was a time in Spain, and many times over, when Jews had three choices: convert to Catholicism, leave or be killed by the Inquisition. People who took the first option were known as conversos, and they were always suspect. Had they truly converted? Could they be trusted? Neighbors watched carefully for the slightest slip, the wrong word, a too-Jewish song, a meal with suspect foods in it, and any sign that needed to be reported to the Inquisition.

Jump forward in time five hundred years, to a Catholic girl living in a California ranch-style house, annoying the nuns with questions that probe for weak spots in Catholic logic. Something doesn't feel right to her. Years later, she gets a clue. It's possible that her ancestors may have been Spanish Sephardic Jewish conversos.

The Forgetting River is Doreen Carvajal's right-brain, non-linear search for the true story of her heritage. She travels through standard searches, visiting libraries and examining primary documents, to DNA testing, to more esoteric quests for personal symbols in food, music, and what the ancient bells, still ringing from Spanish Catholic cathedrals, have to tell her.

Eventually Carvajal moves her family to a tiny town, Arcos de la Frontera, in the southwest part of Spain, about eighty-five miles from Gibraltar. Here she has a visceral experience. For the first time, people automatically pronounce her last name correctly. She also learns that the wall of silence still exists. When she asks about a special toll rung for Inquisition prisoners, Dolores, a bell-ringer, replies, "We don't talk about those things."

I loved the language in The Forgetting River, the descriptions, the way the words flowed, and the focus on the personal. Then there were the people Carvajal meets, small capsule portraits like the restauranteur Francisco whose own quest for his Jewish roots includes cooking with traditional ingredients and recipes.

A hard-core genealogist might miss family charts, but that would miss the point of this journey of discovery. I found Carvajal's search highly personal and holistic. I highly recommend joining her on that search.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Doreen Carvajal studied journalism and worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. Raised staunchly Catholic, she had clues from other family members that the family's real roots and religious beliefs came from Sephardic Jews from southern Spain. The Forgetting River is about her journey, both geographical and internal to know the truth about her heritage. Visit her website.

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