44 pages 1 hour read

Alice Hoffman


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


Incantation by Alice Hoffman is a historical fiction novel published in 2006. Hoffman is known for publishing across age levels and writing novels that delve into fabulism and explore female protagonists. An experienced novelist, she has published over 30 books and is known for her Practical Magic series, which was turned into a Warner Brothers film in 1998.

Honored by Publishers Weekly as Best Book of the Year, the winner of the 2008 Massachusetts Book Award, an ALA Best Book of Young Adults in 2007, and a Historical Novels Review Editors’ Choice Book, Incantation balances the dark reality of its premise with its young audience and protagonist. Set in 16th-century Spain, the novel depicts the hero’s coming of age during the violent and oppressive era of the Spanish Inquisition.

This guide is based on October 2006 Little Brown and Company e-book edition. The protagonist of the story is known by the name “Estrella” publicly and as “Esther” by her family. For clarity, this study guide will refer to her as Estrella throughout.

Content Warning: The source material deals with death, torture, and antisemitism, as well as hate crimes and cruelty to animals. Descriptions of violence and grief feature prominently.

Plot Summary

Estrella deMadrigal is a young woman living with her mother and grandparents in a village in rural Spain. Though her family adheres to some unusual traditions, Estrella believes them to be Christian. She spends much of her time with her mother, who dyes yarn and practices herbal folk medicine.

One day, Estrella and her best friend, Catalina, notice fire in the village plaza. There, they find soldiers burning the books of a rabbi. Estrella later learns that the town leaders accused the local Jewish community of theft, and the book burning soon segues into antisemitic riots and looting. Around this time, Estrella notices that many people are coming to her family’s home to seek advice from her grandfather. Meanwhile, her connection with Andres, Catalina’s cousin, deepens.

Soon the deMadigrals’ neighbors are arrested; the fact that they attended the same church as Estrella’s family further heightens her suspicions that her mother and grandparents are keeping secrets from her. After seeing a list of signs that someone is secretly Jewish, Estrella confronts her grandmother, who acknowledges the truth: The deMadrigals are Jewish but have found ways of retaining their beliefs and traditions beneath the guise of Christianity.

After Estrella confronts her grandfather with the knowledge she has gained, he offers to teach her like he instructed her older brother, Luis.

Meanwhile, Estrella and Catalina’s relationship reaches a breaking point as Andres and Estrella confess their feelings for one another. Armed with information about Estrella’s family, Catalina turns Estrella’s grandfather in to the Inquisition in order to hurt Estrella. After her mother, Abra, is arrested as well, Estrella and her grandmother are forced to flee into the woods. Estrella chooses to trust Andres with her secret and her family’s last heirloom, the emerald ring her deceased father gave her mother.

After she and her grandmother visit their home for the last time, Estrella confronts Catalina about her betrayal and curses her. However, Estrella and her grandmother can only watch helplessly as the Inquisition executes 50 people, including Abra and Luis. The sight breaks the spirit of Estrella’s grandmother. While Estrella is able to lead her to safety, the two must still mourn their family and their home.

They make it back to the safety of the woods, where Andres is waiting to take them to safety in Amsterdam. Estrella vows to remember her family and pass the truth of their heritage down to her children. As she cleans herself of the ashes, the narration explains the future waiting for her once she leaves Encaleflora. Once she makes it to Amsterdam, she will go on to a place called Hispañola, a territory ruled by Spain in the Caribbean. While she will continue to live in hiding, she will pass along the traditions she learned and preserve the memory of those she has lost.