Donna Jo Napoli,
Song of the Magdalene
(Scholastic, 1997)

In Song of the Magdalene, Donna Jo Napoli turns her attention away from familiar folk tales to look at an enigmatic young woman from the New Testament: Mary Magdalene. Piecing together fragments of references, Napoli creates her own version of Mary Magdalene's story, and it is a rich and poignant tale.

Miriam is 10 the first time the brightness blazes out of the blue sky as she succumbs to a seizure. She is alone in the valley near her home when it happens, and for her, living in Magdala in Galilee in the 1st century of the Common Era, it is fortunate that she is alone. Otherwise, she would be considered unclean, harboring demons, for only demons are the cause of seizures.

Miriam keeps her secret to herself, not even telling her beloved father for fear of becoming an outcast. Her mother died in childbirth a few years before, or else Miriam might have confided in her. She is afraid to tell Hannah, the woman who has cared for her family all along, because Hannah has very strict notions about what is proper.

But Miriam does have an ally: Hannah's son, Abraham, a youth whose body is so twisted and crippled that he is unable to walk. Most people assume that his brain functions as poorly as his body and call him "the idiot." But Miriam knows that Abraham is no idiot, and Abraham becomes her friend and her teacher.

The seizures return, in Abraham's presence, but he keeps her secret. He teaches her to read, and she loves especially the canticles of the Song of Songs which she is moved to sing -- although no proper Jewish woman sings, as Miriam learns when she sings in the house of prayer. And Miriam shares with Abraham her valley as she gathers herbs and tries to find just the right one to heal them both. In time, they grow to love each other, but even that is doomed. In the end, Miriam must travel alone, seeking the healer people call Joshua and taking her place in history.

Napoli employs rich and lovely language comparable to the canticles quoted within, although the result is that Miriam seems less accessible than some of Napoli's other heroines. The story unfolds slowly as Miriam lingers on sensory experiences and descriptions; it cannot be said to drag, but it requires concentration and a degree of emotional maturity. Miriam's life is hard; she evolves from a happy and carefree and somewhat obstinate child into a woman who has been shaped by experiences, good and bad. In spite of her difficulties, she does not sink into self pity but tries to find an answer, even as a child.

Miriam is the strongest and most central character, which makes it difficult for the other characters to hold their own, particularly since they are seen exclusively through Miriam's viewpoint. Still, the overall characterizations are well-rounded and convincing.

Napoli asserts that her book is a work of fiction and that the story dictated her choices, but she raises thought-provoking questions about a woman's role in that time as well as her perceptive speculation on why Mary Magdalene was believed to be a prostitute. Overall, this is a good choice for a thoughtful reader who isn't afraid to stretch.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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