Rose Burkoff

The story of Esther Brandeau, the first Jew to set foot in New France, could have been a dull historical re-creation, but Esther, by Sharon E. McKay (Penguin), is an action-packed story about a feisty, unusual and believable heroine. McKay has used archival information on Esther’s life to imagine an eventful history that includes a shipwreck, indentured servitude, preparation to be a courtesan, life in a convent and lots of cross-dressing. Esther leaves her sheltered life in the Jewish quarter of a French town, makes her own way in the world and observes the poverty and injustice caused by the French monarchy. She realizes life as a girl is more dangerous, so she dresses up as a boy and goes off to sea. Esther is finally unmasked after sailing to Quebec, and here she tells her story to a sympathetic official who respects Esther’s bravery, although he condemns her for her refusal to convert to Catholicism. The times come alive in McKay’s story, and the characters and scenarios all pulse with life without seeming contrived or overly full of historical detail.

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