Song of the Magdalene
by Donna Jo Napoli
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Part history, part love story, part epic, this riveting novel recreates the childhood and young womanhood of Mary Magdalene, the friend of Jesus who is mentioned in the gospels but about whom almost nothing is known historically.
In ancient Israel, epileptics were thought to be unclean, possessed of an evil spirit, and consequently were shunned. Therefore, when Miriam has her first blackout and seizure, she tells no one, but instead tries desperately to conceal her condition. Only with Abraham, the crippled son of her caretaker, can Miriam be herself. Miriam finds out that Abraham, thought to be an idiot, is actually highly intelligent and literate. Over the many years they are together, they fall deeply in love and eventually pledge their marriage vows in secret. But tragedy strikes — Abraham dies, and Miriam, who is carrying his baby, loses the baby when she is brutally raped. Looking for solace, she leaves her home for a wandering life, and eventually discovers the peace she seeks in her own inner strength and in the acceptance and love of a man called Jesus.
Miriam couldn't repress the songs that rose up within her — she had to sing them, even though women in her society were forbidden to sing. What do you think the "song" of the Magdalene is? Consider Father, Hannah, Miriam, Abraham, Judith, Jacob, and Joshua the Healer - what would each of them say the song of the Magdalene is, or should be? Look at the cover keynote that says, "Listen to the melody . . ." What melody of life do you think Miriam hears? How does that melody contrast with what others around her hear? What do we learn about our capacity to accept differences, and our ability to not fear the unknown, as we watch Miriam struggle with the melody of life she hears? What insights into human nature do you carry away after reading Song of the Magdalene?
Conflict against society, conflict against other individuals, and conflict within oneself are all major elements of this novel. Can you give examples of each type of conflict? Which conflict most shapes Miriam in becoming the person she eventually becomes? Discuss Miriam's struggles to reconcile the conflict she feels between being an obedient Jewish daughter and woman, and loving the man she chooses. What if Miriam's father had been less tolerant of his daughter's desires? Would Miriam have had the courage to stand up for her beliefs?
Historical fiction requires a careful reconstruction of the time and place in which the story is set. As well as the map of ancient Israel in the front of the book, there are many passages in the book that help the reader enter into this past time and place — for example, the detailed descriptions of the plants and landscape Miriam sees when she goes for walks, or of the people in the town. Which descriptive passage did you find most evocative?
On page 63 Miriam describes herself as "just eyes observing the World . . . from behind my veil." Then on page 212 she says, "I had given up my songs twice. I would never give them up again . . .. My songs were me and I was them." Later on pages 235 and 236 Miriam sings her own songs, not canticles from the Song of Songs, but songs of her own life. These three passages give insight into the changes Miriam goes through over time. Create a time line of Miriam's life that illustrates the major events of her life. Discuss or show how those events created the changes in her so that she moved from being someone willing to observe the world from behind a veil, to someone unwilling to give up her songs, to someone who created her own songs.
- Who is the stronger character, Miriam or Abraham? Abraham lets people think he's an idiot — do you see this as a sign of fear, or of wisdom? — or both? On page 124 when Miriam pleads with Abraham to speak to Judith, he refuses, and later explains to her: "If they know I can see things and understand them, if they know I'm like them inside, it's too much. It's too horrible. They fear it could happen to them" (p. 126). Do you think he was right to refuse her? How hard must that have been, to refuse the wish of someone he loved? Does his refusal mean he was selfish?
- Judith becomes an important person in Miriam's life. What does she offer Miriam that Miriam has lacked? Does Judith understand Abraham's abilities? If she does, why does she keep the secret?
- Miriam shames her sister by singing aloud in the house of prayer, while Abraham feels ashamed because he did not join her in the singing. Should Miriam have sung? Should she have felt ashamed? What religions are there today where women are not allowed to participate in the same religious services as men? What places are there today where women's capabilities are seen as less than men's?
- How does Miriam feel when she learns that Abraham will teach her to read? Why has it been the practice for girls and women not to be taught to read? What other groups throughout history have been denied the right to learn to read? What does that tell us about the importance of reading?
- Miriam's seizures occur at critical junctures in her life. Identify the changes that are happening to Miriam as she experiences each of the seizures.
- The cover illustration shows Rosetti's famous painting of Persephone, the goddess who was doomed to marry Hades, King of the Underworld. Read the legend of Persephone and then discuss the parallels between Persephone and Miriam. What do you think re the major similarities and differences between them?
Other books to bompare and bontrast
Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Nancy Garden
Miriam's Well by Lois Ruby
The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Miriam's Cup: A Passover Story by Fran Manushkin
Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Golden Gelman
Other books by the author
The Magic Circle
For the Love of Venice
Stones in Water
Trouble on the Tracks
About the author
Donna Jo Napoli's books have received much recognition for their ability to transport readers to unusual settings, and for action that keeps them turning pages. The Magic Circle, Song of the Magdalene, and Zel have all been named ALA Best Books for Young Adults. Donna Jo Napoli is Chair of the Linguistics Department at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she lives with her family.
Discussion guide written by Kylene Beers and Teri Lesesne, both of whom teach children's and young adult literature at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.