Henner Marcus is a professor of French Medieval Jewish Philosophy based in Chicago. One day he receives a letter from his cousin, Nina Aschauer, who’s been missing for the last five years. A historian with a brilliant, promising career, she had left Chicago and travelled to France in search of the place she was accidentally born while her parents fled from the Nazis, a remote village in the Pyranees by the name of Valladine, a place not even present in maps.
In the letter, Nina urgently begs him to meet her in Toulouse with a large sum of money. Deeply intrigued and out of concern for his cousin’s safety, Henner makes the 5,000-mile trip. Once in Toulouse, he receives an unexpected package containing a mysterious manuscript. The manuscript appears to be a codex written in medieval Occitan, a language still spoken today in the area of Languedoc. Henner also meets Etoile, a historian and Nina’s best friend.
Together, Henner and Etoile begin deciphering the codex and soon become entranced by the fascinating first-person account and by its author, Dina, a Jewess born into a wealthy, pious family who falls prey to a deceitful, lustful priest and eventually ended up incarcerated in the prison of the Inquisition. Her tale describes the expulsion of the Jews from France in the early 1300s. Thus the novel moves back and forth in time and interweaves Henner’s, Nina’s, Etoile’s and Dina’s persecution stories.
Who is this Dina Miryam? Did she really exist? Is her account real? How is her story connected to Nina’s and why did Nina disappear five years ago into a presumed village no one knows about?
Dina’s Lost Tribe is an interesting, at times engrossing read. The author does a skillful job in keeping each story distinct in flavor from the other. I’m not a historian so I can’t comment on the veracity of the facts, but from a reader’s point of view, the book seems extensively researched. As I read Dina’s tale, I was transported to a time and place where horrible injustices where committed. Like Henner and Etoile, I too was entranced with Dina, a woman who tried to remain brave and strong against all adversity. The author draws interesting parallels between Dina and the old biblical character with the same name. She also explores various themes, such as the hypocrisy of religion, the capacity of one human being to hurt another, the harmful consequences of ignorance and superstition, and the power of one individual to overwhelm and control another.
This is a slow read, for the simple reason that there’s a lot to be absorbed. The paragraphs are often long and written in heavy-handed language. If what you’re looking for is a fast-paced page-turner, this isn’t the book for you. However, it is the perfect novel for those who enjoy history, meaning and depth in their stories. The premise is intriguing and original and I felt I had taken a little history course at the end, which is always a plus.