cover image The Song of the Magdalene

The Song of the Magdalene

Donna Jo Napoli. Scholastic, $15.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-590-93705-4

Imagining the youth of Mary Magdalene, this novel is easily Napoli's (Zel, see p. 49) riskiest; unfortunately, it is not one of her most successful. Miriam, daughter of a wealthy Jewish widower in Magdala, is 10 when the novel opens and is about to have her first seizure. Miriam's experiences over the next eight or nine years build up in her a rage at social injustice as well as solidarity with the sick and suffering, therefore preparing her for the fellowship of Joshua, ""the healer that the Romans called Jesus,"" whom she meets in the final passages. Miriam suffers more seizures; loves a ""cripple"" despite popular belief that the diseased are ""inhabited by demons""; buries her lover; discovers herself pregnant; is raped so violently that she miscarries; and is sent out of Magdala for her own safety. The effort as a whole is lumpy. The pacing seems clotted around climactic moments, while the tone rarely goes beyond an uncomfortable mix of quasi-archaisms (""The fierce purity of our passions knotted us together on the Creator's earth"" describes sexual intercourse). The plotting, too, suffers from conflicting impulses toward periodicity (e.g., the belief in demons) and contemporary sensibilities (Miriam's surprise and outrage at the men's prayer of thanks for not being born women). Readers may come away with new thoughts about a different era, but insights into a powerful Biblical figure are few and far between. Ages 12-up. (Oct.)