Book Review: My Name is Isaiah by Debbie Strom (Feldheim Publishers 2019)
Historical Fiction, 272 pp.
Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
Get ready to be transported back to the time of sword fights, secret passageways, and thunderous horseback-riding in Debbie Strom’s adventure novel My Name is Isaiah. Set in the time of the Portuguese inquisition, My Name is Isaiah is action-packed and unpredictable, yet with deeper messages carefully woven within the fabric of an exciting plot.
First serialized in the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, the story is told through the eyes of Johanne De Sabato, a young Portuguese man who has just turned 18 and considers himself, “[S]on of a nobleman. Companion to the prince. Destined for wealth and title.”
However, Johanne’s dreams fall apart when he realizes the truth—his family is Jewish. They, like many families in their town, are conversos (secret Jews). Johanne was an infant when his family was forced to convert to Christianity. Secretly, his parents never accepted the conversion. They this information to Johanne’s brother and him on his 18th birthday; but Johanne is horrified and refuses to accept the fact that he is a “lowly Jew…earmarked for persecution and death.” Johanne thinks, “At best, they (Jews) were to be pitied. At worst, hated. I couldn’t be one of them. It wasn’t what I was meant to be.”
While Johanne, whose real name is Yochanan, has an incredibly difficult time integrating this information, his brother Osvaldo (who immediately begins calling himself his name, Isaiah) does not have the same conflict. In fact, Isaiah is excited to learn about Judaism and start practicing secretly with his parents.
From the outset, Strom does a wonderful job conveying the brothers’ personality clash, shown through their different desires and ways of behaving. This conflict and ultimate resolution is one of the strongest points of the book. While some works of historical fiction spend an inordinate amount of time describing the setting and can be plot-driven, Strom works hard to build the characters; their relationships are of primary concern, while the history is the well-done backdrop.
Other relationships are well done, too; the mother’s relationship with Johanne, the strong connection Isaiah builds with the other conversos, and the father’s relationship to his sons. Even the relationship between Johanne and the prince, his good friend, is intriguing, becoming even more so when Johanne’s struggle with his identity comes to a climax.
Of note is this struggle—Johanne having to question who he thought he was, what he thought of the Jews and non-Jews around him, and what he wants for his future. The twists in the plot keep readers guessing and in suspense as they root for Johanne to do the right thing while feeling the struggle.
The book is well-paced, with the action picking up about halfway through and leading to a surprising ending. Both young adults and adults will enjoy this book; however, for young readers a few places might be a little scary, especially the description of the public ceremony where a Jewish man is to be executed. Strom does an excellent job bringing the reader to the horror of the time of the Portuguese inquisition, and we walk away from the book grateful for the ability we take very much for granted—to publicly and proudly live Jewish lives.