The Audacity of Literacy: Antonio Garrido’s The Scribe

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antonio garrido
Spanish author Antonio Garrido illustrates the obstacles educated, literate women faced in the early Middle Ages in hit latest novel. Image from AmazonCrossing.

It’s hard to imagine a time in the world where reading and writing were forbidden pleasures for women and girls, but towards the start of King Charlemagne’s reign in the Middle ages, that was the all-too-familiar circumstance.

The Scribe, by Spanish author Antonio Garrido (AmazonCrossing), originally released in 2011 as La Scriba, is Garrido’s second book in English, translated by Simon Bruni. It tackles the issue of the importance of literacy in women through its protagonist, Theresa, whose father taught her not only to read and write in both Latin and Greek, but also vital craftsman skills in parchment making. There is much more to the story than this, although Theresa is the cog that keeps it moving.

The twists and turns come on pretty fast in this book, as a matter of fact. The story changes as early as the first couple of chapters. Theresa is already thought to be dead after a tragic fire destroys the shop where she is taking her test to be a parchment maker, a decision that was already being chastised by the men in the field.

This book is a hefty, but surprisingly exciting, read. I began reading ready to follow Theresa on her struggles for acceptance in a patriarchal society, but a rapidly twisting plot turned it into a fugitive road story from Wurzburg, Franconia to Paris and beyond as Theresa searches for her father. Mix that with a mystery thriller and a small dash of a love story—although this is definitely not a romance novel. There is also some well-researched historical observations of Eighth Century life woven into the tale, especially when her father’s surprising connection to Charlemagne himself begins to surface.

Garrido’s knack for detail is impressive, as he not only captures the surroundings, but I felt I had enough knowledge of parchment-making to try the test myself, hopefully with less dramatic results than Theresa.

Image from AmazonCrossing.

I’m always a little apprehensive in reading English text that has translated from another language, particularly Spanish, as living on the Mexican border most of my life has made me no stranger to poorly worded translations. This book flows well, however, as if it was written for the English language to begin with. I don’t know if it is Bruni who should be credited for doing such pristine job finding the right words, or Garrido for crafting a text that translates well in the first place. Either way, they did an admirable job.

However, I found despite my wanting to stand by Theresa on her entire journey, there was an inconsistency in her personality that made it sometimes difficult for me. Her overall spirit, intelligence, and stubbornness, won over in the end.

Garrido isn’t by far the first to tackle the “literate female” as the rebellious hero, as women reading seems to be a threat–or at least an annoyance–in many stories from Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to Jo in Alcott’s American classic Little Women, although Theresa’s obstacles are certainly more imposing, and even life-threatening.

A sad after-effect of this book has been the realization that nearly two thousand years later, there are still places in the world where women and girls are still denied the right to learn the dire skills of reading and writing, much less be allowed a proper education. One recent educational blog I read cited figures from UNESCO that as recent as 2012, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women, who also make up 53 percent of the unschooled population worldwide.

I recommended Garrido’s highly realistic read, not only as an entertaining historic fiction, but as a reminder that as long ago and far away as Theresa’s struggles were, they are still very much part of the life still faced by far to many women around the globe today.

GeekMom received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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