Writing Familiar Strangers: Gail Carson Levine on her family's long history of migration

Newbery Honor author Gail Carson Levine writes about her family’s journey as Spanish Jewish exiles and eventual immigration to the United States. In her new book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, she writes of a young Jewish girl living under the Spanish Inquisition.

When he came as a very little boy from Salonika to the United States in the early 1900s, my father ended an odyssey that his ancestors had begun (or that had been begun for them) centuries before. Salonika was part of the Ottoman Empire when he was born, but it was annexed by Greece a few months later. When he reached New York’s Ellis Island, he spoke no English and didn’t speak Turkish (the language of the Ottoman Empire) or Greek, either, although his parents and grandparents and many times great-grandparents had been in Salonika since the 1500s. He spoke Spanish.

Expelled en masse from Spain in 1492, the Jews scattered to wherever they could go. Most went to nearby Portugal. Some sailed for North Africa. Some took boats directly to the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultan welcomed them, the only welcome they received from any nation. My father’s ancestors (and half of mine, of course) crossed the Mediterranean Sea to the kingdom of Naples, one of the few destinations on the Italian peninsula that was willing to admit them. Their stay was temporary, though. By 1540, all the Jews were made to leave, and that was when our ancestors headed for Salonika.

I don’t know why my grandfather emigrated to the U.S. He died only a few years after he got here, and my father would never talk about his childhood, but there was a big fire in Salonika in 1917. That may have been it. Or my family may have supported the Ottoman Empire in the war with Greece, and they may have felt uneasy in their new country.

(Lucky for my father and me that he left. The Jews of Salonika were wiped out by the Nazis.)

My father's mother had died of childbirth complications a few months after he was born. My grandfather remarried, but after he died, my father was placed in The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, where he grew up and lost his connection to his roots. I invented his orphanage childhood in my first and only other (so far) historical novel, Dave at Night.

For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells I went much further back. I knew only that the Jews had been expelled from Spain. A cousin told me that our ancestors had gone to a town in Italy that began with a T. When I discovered that they would have had to go to the kingdom of Naples, I narrowed the towns down to Taranto or Otranto. That much information—the T—probably came down the years to us because, when they left Italy, the Jewish communities stayed together and formed synagogues. In Salonika, they probably went to the Taranto or Otranto synagogue.

One snippet doesn’t make a story. I read widely, not only the classics of the history of the Jews of Spain, but also a biography of Queen Isabella, a book of Sephardic recipes gleaned from the records of the Spanish Inquisition, one of the first books on fashion, and a book on slavery during the period.

Few people—Jews, Christians, Muslims, men, women, children—had much agency in the Middle Ages. You were unlikely ever to travel more than a few miles from the place you were born. Men generally followed the occupations their fathers had pursued. Almost everyone married within their social class and religion. Daily life followed established patterns.

Jewish women and girls stayed home, except to go to the synagogue on religious holidays. Girls cooked, spun, weaved, studied with their older brothers, and cared for their younger siblings. I doubt that they questioned or even noticed the boundaries that hemmed them in.

Alas, it’s hard to write a main character who has no agency.

Luckily, a few Jews led wider lives—courtiers who served the nobility, the Church, and even the monarchs, as financiers or physicians. While performing their duties, these men (always men) contrived to protect the Jews.

Loma’s grandfather, her abuelo, is such a man. He dotes on his granddaughter and keeps her at his side when he travels across Spain on missions for the king and queen, which also help the Jews. Loma has a front row seat on the events that will lead to the expulsion, even though no one recognizes the signs. She’s present after the conquest of Malagá from Muslim rule, when the Jews who lived there are imprisoned for four years until Jews in the rest of Spain raise a ransom for them. She’s in the synagogue when the rabbi, forced by the Church, tells the congregation that they must report to the Inquisition any converts to Christianity who continue to practice Judaism—on pain of herem (excommunication).

I couldn’t write a truly fifteenth century girl—the time gap is too great—but I was determined not to write a twenty-first century one. Loma doesn’t want agency. Her goals are traditional; she loves babies and longs to be a wife and mother.

Agency is thrust on her. Her abuelo has spells—minor strokes, in modern terms—and when Loma is alone with him, she must act, even when she’s quite young. Her brother Yuda, a compulsive gambler, threatens the family through her. She has to keep his secret while protecting them. When the expulsion is upon them, Loma’s abuelo has a major stroke, and the two of them are pursued by agents of the king and queen. By then, she’s as prepared as anyone can be, even though the risks are enormous and the likelihood of success slight.

During the closing chapters, Loma becomes the sort of ancestor we all had to have. Desperate times are in everyone’s family history—centuries or mere decades ago—when people with extraordinary strength and determination saved themselves and those they loved so that their grit could be passed on to us.

I don’t have children, but I hope my characters have become book parents and book ancestors of many of my readers. I wrote A Ceiling Made of Eggshells with that wish in mind.