by Alice Hoffman

Publishing Information: Little, Brown: New York, 2006
ISBN: 0316010197 / 1423323599 (Audio)
Pages: 176 p.
Ages: 12& Up

Estrella's family is hiding a huge secret. But will her best friend, Catalina, betray her trust because of a boy's love for Estrella and not her?

Book Talk:
Imagine one day being told you are not what you've been led to believe for your entire life. "If every life is a river, than it's little wonder that we do not even notice the changes that occur until we are far out in the darkest sea. One day you look around and nothing is familiar, not even your own face. My name once meant daughter, granddaughter, friend, sister, beloved.   Now those words mean only what their letters spell out: Star in the night sky. Truth in the darkness. I have crossed over to a place where I never thought I'd be. I am someone I would have never imagined. A secret. A dream. I am this, body and soul. Burn me. Drown me. Tell me lies. I will still be who I am." (p. 3)

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

New Christians
religious Persecution
Spanish Inquisition

Awards & Reviews:
Masssachusetts Library Association Best Teen Book, 2007
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007

Growing up in Spain around 1500 in the village where her family has lived for 500 years, Estrella, 16, knows that there are secrets in her home. As books are burned in the streets, and Jews from the nearby ghetto are murdered, she confronts the reality that she is a Marrano, part of a community of underground Jews who attend a special "church." The plot tangent involving Estrella's best friend, Catalina, jealous because Estrella has taken her boyfriend, seems too purposeful, but the historical fact is compelling, with the reason for the secrets spelled out in the horrifying persecution: Estrella is witness to her mother's burning and her brother's bones being broken by the police "one at a time." Acclaimed adult writer Hoffman, whose YA books include Aquamarine (2001), makes the history immediate in Estrella's spare, intense first-person narrative, in which tension builds as Estrella's discovers her hidden identity. Suggest Deborah Siegel's The Cross by Day, the Mezuzzah by Night (1999) or June Weltman's Mystery of the Missing Candlestick (2004) to readers wanting other stories about Marranos.-- Hazel Rochman
Booklist, September 1, 2006, p110

Kirkus Reviews Echoes of the Holocaust reverberate through this 16th-century tale of a young Spanish woman who discovers through love, betrayal and tragedy that her family is secretly Jewish. Estrella has never questioned why she's sometimes called "Esther" at home, why her family lights candles before dinner on Friday and other habits -- until she reads a poster that describes the practices of Jews, who hide beneath a veil of Christianity to protect themselves. Meanwhile, a growing attachment with Andres, a neighbor, poisons her relationship with her closest friend Catalina, to whom he's been promised. In revenge, Catalina goes to the authorities, setting in motion a chain of arrests, mock trials and at last, a huge auto-da-f that leaves only Estrella and her grandmother alive. Having witnessed it all, Estrella washes off the ashes and sets out for the New World, vowing not to let herself or her descendants forget. More poet than historian, Hoffman focuses less on period detail than on her protagonist's inner life and voice; her tale therefore has a timeless quality, though because she leaves the background vague, and also gives Estrella's family elders mystical powers, it's not her most convincing outing. (Fiction. 12-14)
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2006)

As she did in The Foretelling , Hoffman offers another fascinating glimpse of a past civilization with reverberations for both past and present in this moving novel set during the Spanish Inquisition. The year is 1500 and, in the village of Encaleflora where 16-year-old narrator Estrella lives, Christian soldiers, "driven by bloodlust and evil," crusade against all forms of heresy. First, they burn books; next, they rob Jewish and Muslim families of their possessions, then torture or kill them. Readers familiar with Jewish traditions may guess what Estrella does not yet know about her family: that they are conversos, "new Christians," a community practicing the Jewish faith in secret. With expert pacing and lyrical prose, Hoffman lays out the clues that lead Estrella to self-discovery while also educating readers about the nuances of the times. Early signs point to the heroine's best friend Catalina's eventual betrayal of her (she invites Estrella over for a dinner of sausage, for instance), because she is jealous of the attentions Estrella receives from Catalina's cousin and fiancé, Andres. During her darkest hours, after her grandfather, mother and brother are brutally murdered, Estrella still refuses to compromise her values or her devotion to Andres, who returns her love despite the dangers. Even secondary and tertiary characters emerge fully formed, while Estrella's spare, eloquent narrative evokes her sorrow and her determination to survive and never to forget the atrocities she has witnessed. "Even when I was an old woman,... older than the oldest raven in the sky, I'd remember everything I'd ever known and seen," she vows as she prepares an escape to Amsterdam. Ages 12-up.
Publishers Weekly, October 16, 2006, p54)

Gr 7 Up: The opposing forces of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal underscore this brief but rich tale set during the Spanish Inquisition. Told by 16-year-old Estrella deMadrigal, the novel shows how gruesome beliefs nourished by ignorance and prejudice destroyed the lives of countless people. Hoffman weaves a tale of a close friendship between two teens, Estrella and Catalina. Both envision that their lives will be intertwined forever. However, there is a secret about Estrella and her family that unfolds in spurts. The deMadrigals are Jews who follow their religion in secret, appearing to the world as good Catholics in order to escape persecution. Hoffman, a master storyteller, has captured this harsh time and the fragile lives of the hidden Jews. On one level this is the story of a friendship and the deadly interference of jealousy. It is also a story of the power of love and the resilience of the human spirit. Estrella develops incredible strength as she tries to save herself and her grandmother. Ultimately, it is the love of a Christian, Catalina's cousin Andres, that saves her. Hoffman's lyrical prose and astute characterization blend to create a riveting, horrific tale that unites despair with elements of hope. Good companion selections include Waldtraut Lewin's Freedom beyond the Sea (Delacorte, 2001) and Kathryn Lasky's Blood Secret (HarperCollins, 2004). --Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ (Reviewed December 1, 2006)
School Library Journal, December 2006, p144 (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. "Other girls I knew talked behind your back and smiled at you falsely. Not Catalina. She knew who I was deep inside." (page 5). Like Estrella and Catalina, have you ever had a best friend that you knew for most of your life? What qualities did this person have that made them your best friend?
  2. Estrella is very close to her brother. She thinks things would be better if her brother came home. (page 15) If you have brothers or sisters, what is your relationship like? If you're an only child what do you think it would be like?
  3. "My grandfather may have ignored me completely, but my grandmother was even worse. She noticed only what was wrong, never what was right." (page 18) Estrella's grandmother is very hard on her, and she can never do anything good enough in her grandmother's eyes. How is your relationship with your grandmother? What are the positive and negative aspects?
  4. When Estrella turned sixteen, her grandmother gave her a strand of pearåls. Have you ever received an extremely special gift for your birthday? Why was it special?
  5. Incantation takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. How does it compare to Germany during Hitler's reign during World War II? How is it different?
  6. Estrella learns from her grandmother that her life has been a lie. "Was everything I'd ever thought and said and done been a lie? And no one ever told me? ... We are Jews and we always have been, but the only way for us to survive is to pretend to be something else."  (pages 76 and 77) Explain how Estrella feels at this moment. Do you think the Jews in Germany at the time of Hitler did the same as Estrella's family? How would you react if one day you learned that everything you knew about your life was a lie?
  7. "That small thing was a kiss ... Catalina caught us ...The officials didn't come to Catalina. She went to them." (pages 119 and 120) Catalina is jealous of Estrella's relationship with Andres so she reports to officals that Estrella's family is Jewish. Since Catalina was angry with Estrella, is it okay to do what Catalina did? Was it too mean? Did Estrella deserve to lose her family members because she loved Catalina's cousin Andreas?  

Other discussion questions can be found at


Related Websites:
Author's website -

Information about the Spanish Inquisition -

Ladino Language -

Ferdinand and Isabella's Edict against Spanish Jews -                       

Spanish Jews' Oppression

Blood Secret by Katheryn Lasky, 2004
The Cross by Day, the Mezzuzah by Night by Deborah Siegel, 1999
The Cure by Sonia Levitin, 1999
Daughter of Venice by Donna Jo Napoli, 2002
Freedom Beyond the Sea by Waldtraut Lewin, 2001
Mystery of the Missing Candlestick by June Weltman, 2004
Secrets in the House of Delgado by Gloria D. Miklowitz, 2001
Shylock's Daughter by Mirjam Pressler, 2001

Other Books by the Author:
Fireflies, 1997
Horsefly, 2000
Aquamarine, 2001
Indigo, 2002
Green Angel, 2003
Moondog, 2004
The Foretelling, 2005

Adult Books by the Author:
Property of, 1977
The Drowning Season, 1979
Angel Landing, 1980
White Horses, 1982
Fortune's Daughter, 1985
Illumination Night, 1987
At Risk, 1988
Seventh Heaven, 1990
Turtle Moon, 1992
Second Nature, 1994
Practical Magic, 1995
Here on Earth, 1997
Local Girls, 1999
The River King, 2000
Blue Diary, 2001
The Probable Future, 2003
Blackbird House, 2004
The Ice Queen, 2005
Skylight Confessions, 2007

About the Author:
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City in 1952. She grew up on Long Island. She has a bachelor's degree from Adelphi University. She received a Mirrellees Fellowship to Stanford University Creative Writing Center and received a Master's degree in creative writing. Four of her novels have been made into movies. She currently lives in Boston and New York.