In 1492, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain sends 12-year-old Joseph and his young sister to slavery on a sugar plantation.
Any Jews who don’t convert must leave their homes in Spain, but neighboring countries have no desire to take in these unwanted refugees. When Joseph and his family, after a grueling walk on which many of their thousands of fellow Jews die, reach the border with Portugal, they’re told that they must pay everything they have or they’ll become slaves to the king. Joseph’s parents pay the tax, but to no avail. In a harrowing scene, these Jewish refugee children are ripped from their parents’ arms and sent into slavery. Many of the children die on the brutal ocean journey to São Tomé, off the coast of central Africa. On São Tomé, the children—forcibly converted to Christianity—prepare the land for sugar farming along with white Portuguese convicts and, eventually, African slaves. Joseph, who can read and write and figure, has some privileges, though he still labors in the fields. When he befriends an Igbo slave known as Tomás, Tomás makes it clear that white-skinned, literate Joseph’s slavery is qualitatively different from his own. While the scenario and constant peril should draw readers in, Joseph’s first-person narration is sadly flat; a topic this vital deserves a more compelling story.
An important educational (rather than enthralling) take on this little-known historical tragedy. (map, historical note, endnotes, author’s note, glossary, further reading) (Historical fiction. 9-11)