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The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition Hardcover – August 16, 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Doreen Carvajal has undertaken an extrordinary journey, and the story she tells is both personal and universal."
- Anne Lamott

"[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

“Darkly poetic.”
- Christian Science Monitor

“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

“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.”

- The Jewish Book Council

“A mesmerizing journey through time, across cultures and into one woman's rich personal history.”
- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Carvajal’s powerful prose is strong enough to hold these divergent story lines in a cohesive and engaging narrative of self-discovery and historical investigation.”
- Publishers Weekly 

“Such an intriguing topic, and Carvajal…certainly knows how to write.”
- Library Journal

“[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.”
- Booklist

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (August 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594487391
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594487392
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #962,530 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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