Sunday, June 17, 2018

Dancing Girl by Gladys Malvern (book review)

Title: Dancing Girl
Author: Gladys Malvern
Publication: Macrae Smith Company, Hardcover, 1959
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Setting: About 28-29 A.D.
Plot: One of ten rescued from a shipwreck, Claudia, brought up as a dancing girl, becomes the slave of Herod-Daniel in Galilee, soon after the death of John the Baptist.  Orphaned Claudia faces her new challenges bravely, relying on the friendship of two Greeks, kindly Baladan and his handsome son Julian. When the local ruler, Herod-Daniel, finds his new slaves include a talented dancing girl from Tyre, a scholar of great learning, and a gifted athlete, Claudia is set to entertain the household, Baladan begins tutoring Herod-Daniel’s frail son Enoch, and Julian is responsible for Enoch’s physical wellbeing. Soon both Julian and Enoch have fallen in love with Claudia, who has become preoccupied with a young prophet, Jesus, who is preaching and performing miracles nearby. While the words and deeds of Jesus are scorned by the ruling class of Galilee, Claudia’s friendship with the followers of Jesus jeopardizes her life but ultimately leads to happiness.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, although intended for young teens

My Impressions: Gladys Malvern wrote a wide variety of books for young people, ranging from career romances (of which my favorites are Gloria Ballet Dancer and Prima Ballerina), biographies about historical figures such as Lady Jane Gray, historical novels set in colonial America, the England of William the Conqueror, and the Old and New Testament. This is one I had never come across and I learned about it when reading an anthology called Dancers Dancers Dancers edited by Lee Wyndham, herself a noted juvenile writer (1912-78) who wrote about all types of dancers and lived outside New York (I wonder if she and Gladys ever met?). Some of the stories in the anthology had been published in American Girl magazine, which my mother read as a girl. The book included an excerpt from Dancing Girl, which I then requested from ILL.

Claudia is the usual intrepid Malvern heroine – dedicated, wistful, affectionate – and as an orphan who has never experienced love or kindness, she is fascinated by handsome Julian who saved her from drowning and his thoughtful father. More interesting than the love triangle between Claudia, her rescuer, Julian, and Enoch, the son of her new owner, however, is her growing devotion to the new teacher, Jesus. As the book opens, John the Baptist has just been murdered by another Herod, a governor appointed by Rome, his life bartered for a dance by Herod Antipas’ stepdaughter Salome. The backlash from this unpopular move makes some people in Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, more interested in the preaching by Jesus, and although Claudia is from Phoenicia and has previously worshipped the god Ba’al she is intrigued by this unusual message of love:
He spoke in a voice of authority.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” came the voice of the vibrant young teacher, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Ridiculous,” scoffed Enoch.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
What an absurd theory, thought Enoch.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
The sermon went on. At first Enoch was restless, wanting to leave, but Claudia, Baladan and Julian seemed enthralled so he relaxed, wondering how men as wise as Baladan . . . could be taken in by such impractical teaching . . .
In this depiction, Jesus seems mystical and distant but after he cures a leper even skeptical Enoch is close to becoming a believer while Claudia’s growing devotion to Jesus results in grave danger. And while Claudia and her fellow slaves are imaginary, some of the events of this book are inspired by the Gospel: Matthew 5:1-7, 8, 1-17, 14: 2-11; Mark 6:16-28; and John 4:46-53, Malvern’s combination of fact and fiction make this little-known novel unusual and appealing.
Gladys Malvern, sketched by sister Corinne
Note that Malvern also wrote Dancing Star, a biographical novel about Anna Pavlova (which must have been reprinted many times as it is quite easy to find), and that title usually comes up if you search for Dancing Girl – it is enjoyable but they are definitely not the same book.  Unfortunately, while some of Malvern's books have been reprinted or made available electronically, this is not one of them.  My other Malvern reviews can be accessed here.

Source: I am grateful to the BPL for getting this book for me via InterLibrary Loan from the famous Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore (a coincidence that this book contains an important character named Enoch).

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