HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Spice and the Devil’s Cave
Author: Agnes Danforth Hewes
Illustrator: Lynd Ward
Publisher: Dover Publications, republished 2014
Related website: http://www.doverpublications.com (publisher)
Language level: 3 (unfortunately)
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 12 and up
Rating: ***** 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Hewes, Agnes Danforth. Spice and the Devil’s Cave (published in 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, NY; republished in 2014 by Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, NY). It is around 1496, and Abel Zakuto is a Jewish banker living with his wife Ruth in Lisbon, Portugal. His cousin Abraham Zakuto is an advisor to Portuguese King Manoel, successor of the late King John II who had restored the policies of Atlantic exploration, reviving the work of his great-uncle, Henry the Navigator. Columbus has already made two trips across the Atlantic for Spain, and other countries are sending out expeditions. Abel is much more interested in mapmaking and sea navigation than banking. His close friends include Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan. They are joined by a young man recently arrived from Venice, Italy, named Nicolo Conti, grandson of the famous Italian explorer Nicolo Conti, and are hoping that Portugal can rival Spain and find a way to the lands of spice by sailing around the stormy Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, called by many “The Devil’s Cave.”
Finally, Manoel decides to send da Gama on just such a voyage, a rough, dangerous trip that may take two to three years. However, Nicolo learns of a plot involving Arabs to steal Zakuto’s maps, destroy da Gama’s fleet, and give the newly discovered sea route to another country. Meanwhile, Manoel has formed an alliance with Spain through an engagement which requires the expulsion of all Jews from Portugal. Will da Gama make it back? Who is behind this plot? Can Nicolo do anything to thwart it? And what happens to Abel Zakuto? The Age of Discovery springs to life in this thrilling tale of Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and other intrepid fifteenth-century explorers. In 1931, author Agnes Danforth Hewes won the first of her three Newbery Honor awards with this book. There are a few references to drinking wine. Besides some common euphemisms (e.g., blasted), the “h” word is used now and then though not for cursing, and the term “Lord” is occasionally found as an exclamation.
However, Spice and the Devil’s Cave is great historical fiction for this time period with a good picture of the political and trade relationships between various nations and people groups in those days. This well-written book takes place in interesting times and has a finely developed cast of characters, some of which are real, while others were invented for the story. In addition, the prejudicial mistreatment of the Jews is highlighted, and how the Jews furthered the work of discovery plays a significant part in the story. In addition, Hewes had tremendous insights into the cultures of the Arab world because she had the fortune to be raised in Syria as the daughter of missionaries. Besides, it’a just a good story. There is even a touch of romance. One person wrote, “Highly recommend for everyone, but especially homeschooling families looking for a good family read aloud.” Lynd Ward, whose enchanting woodcuts illustrate this gripping adventure, also illustrated The Cat Who Went to Heaven, the Newbery Award winner that same year.