Two Novels Reveal Families' Secrets
by Marcia Abramson
Published Sunday January 10, 1999
THE DETROIT FREE PRESS
Hanna's Daughters By Marianne Fredriksson (Ballantine, 320 pages, $24)
The Ghost of Hannah Mendes By Naomi Ragen (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $23)
The name "Hannah" means grace, and grace is what illuminates two
family sagas by Marianne Fredriksson of Sweden and Naomi Ragen of Israel.
Fredriksson's novel was a best-seller in Europe. Ragen, who was born in the
United States, already is well-known for "Jephte's Daughter" and other novels.
Fredriksson's Hanna Broman is a poor farmer's wife in a harsh land. Hanna's
daughter, Anna, and granddaughter, Johanna, grow up in different times, so it is hard for
them to understand Hanna; she is such a puzzle that Anna decides to chronicle her life.
Anna finds that Hanna, sent into service at age 12, was raped by her master's
son. Hanna's parents were happy to turn their disgraced child and her baby son over to old
John Broman. Her body was forever damaged, and each subsequent childbirth nearly killed
her, but she got to like old Broman eventually.
"Nothing's ever comprehensible," Anna decides. "But in small
things, we can have an inkling."
If Anna gets an inkling, Catherine Da Costa, the descendant of Hannah Mendes,
gets an avalanche when Hannah's ghost shows up to set her 20th century descendants
The ghost arrives on the day that 74-year-old Catherine learns she is dying.
Maybe it's just her medication . . . but it certainly seems that Hannah is commanding her
to find nice Jewish boys for her thoroughly modern granddaughters. Don't let this family
assimilate itself away, says Hannah. This is not why she stayed a secret Jew - barely
surviving the Inquisition, seeking and never finding a safe home.
It all happens with supernatural ease. Catherine sends the girls on a quest for
the missing pages of the diary of Hannah Mendes and arranges for them to meet Marius, a
nice Jewish version of Indiana Jones, and his best friend, Gabe, a nice Jewish doctor who
looks like Brad Pitt.
There are some romantic complications to work out, but the problems of four
little people are nothing compared with the story that unfolds as they find the missing
diary pages - a story of persecution, betrayal and torture and love lost.
Ragen based this book in part on the diary of the real Hannah Mendes, also known
as Gracia de Nasi, who ran a powerful 16th century trading house and used it to provide a
kind of underground railroad for Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The result is her best