There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Catherine Ann Tregenna, the heroine of Jane Johnson’s The Tenth Gift longs to escape the life that has been set out for her – that of marriage and babies, in favor of making a name for herself with her exquisite embroidery work in 1625 Cornwall, England. But when she is captured by Turkish pirates, along with the rest of the church congregants, and whisked away to Morocco, to be sold to the highest bidder, she gets more than she bargained for.

This story is told via the writings discovered in a book of embroidery, given as a parting gift to Julia Lovat from her erstwhile lover, Michael 400 years in the future (approx. 2008) Within the pages of this book, between the diagrams of embroidery work, in tiny script, is a memoir of what happened to Catherine (Cat) after she was captured by the Barbary pirates and secreted across the ocean to Africa, a place so unlike anything Cat has ever imagined.

I was thoroughly captured by this story right from the first page. The writing is so lustrous as to submerge me within its exotic location and its equally exotic heroine. For Cat is a feminist of the first order. She doesn’t fit into her limited world of 17th century world where women are mere chattels and men their masters. Though afraid for her life, she fights to stay alive, and to adjust to her situation as best as she can without losing herself.

While in captivity to the “so called” barbarous pirates, Cat learns that Phillip III of Spain pushed the Muslims out of Spain, despite the fact they had lived there through many centuries, and become Catholic in the process. This betrayal, in turn, caused the displaced people to take revenge on the Spanish, by capturing the “Christian Infidels” and selling them at the slave markets. When they ran out of places in Spain to raid, they headed as far as England in search of additional human traffic.

What fascinates me about this, is it reminds me of what’s going on in America today – the same thing that has gone on in many countries over the centuries, when two religions are at odds with each other, and in their fear, seek to shove the other aside. We also learn that there are many similarities between the two religions: Muslim and Christian. They both believe in the Resurrection, and they both feel justified in waging war in the name of religion.

The author has beautifully interwoven the story of Cat in 1625, with the story of Julia Lovat in the 21st century. Julia even goes so far as to travel to the ancient city of Salé in Morocco to uncover the mystery of Catherine Ann Tregenna. And while there, her life is changed in the same way Catherine’s life was changed 400 years before.

This is one of those books that you won’t be able to put down. It is exotic, mysterious, an adventure, time travel, and memoir all rolled into one. I highly recommend it, along with Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, who called this book “Remarkable…clashing cultures and wonderful characters.”

Categories: Book Talk

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