Friday, November 25, 2022

If Love Comes by Gladys Malvern

Title: If Love Comes
Author: Gladys Malvern (1897-1962)
Illustrator: John Alan Maxwell
Publication: Claude Kendall Publishers, hardcover, 1932
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: California, 1820s
Description: When Don Estevan Jose Luis de Questallo loses his wife in childbirth, the joy goes out of his life and he instinctively blames the surviving child who is named Magdalena. He lavishes attention on his son, Dario, and ignores the girl, who grows up lovely but unloved by all but her brother. In fact, Magdalena is told so often that she comes from the Devil that she believes it and acts outrageously to shock others. Close only to Dario, she mocks the worthy young men who admire her. When tragedy strikes, she retreats into herself and is the despair of her elderly abuela. Magdalena longs for an epic love but, just as she is on the verge of one and seems destined for long-overdue happiness, she risks losing everything with a foolish infatuation with a Franciscan friar.  Can she find the love she craves or is she too self-destructive to make the right choices?

My Impression: How could my beloved Gladys Malvern have gone so very wrong with this disturbing historical novel? Those familiar with her warm, sympathetic, often humorous novels for young adults would be horrified by these superstitious and unforgiving Spanish-Americans. The story is set in the early 19th century Alta California, part of the Spanish colony established in 1804, which was later claimed by Mexico in 1824. Magdalena’s family is affluent but deeply superstitious: once they are convinced she has been cursed by the Devil, she is disdained by her peers (especially the women, jealous of her beauty) and feared by the indigenous people. She yearns for something she has barely experienced:
If love comes – if joy comes – I shall take it! I shall not wait to be wooed. I shall take it – anyway I can! I shall catch it in my hands like a bright bird and I shall put it inside my breast against my heart and I shall run away with it . . .
There is so much foreshadowing of disaster that turning each page filled me with apprehension! The glimpses of early California history are intriguing but Magdalena’s affluent family, just six years in the New World when the story begins, has seized the land from the Indians and are contemptuous of them. Admittedly, this is how the New World was settled but in Massachusetts, the stories are sanitized by the first Thanksgiving in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast! Here, the Indians are swarthy, sullen servants and the local priests and Franciscans revel in the idea of the devil. Don Estevan’s attitude toward his newborn daughter never improved :
In remembering that Michaela was dead, he had forgotten what had caused her death and now the thought of his daughter brought with it only a cold repulsion, a renewed bitterness. He did not speak, but into him at that moment came a savage hatred of the being for whom Michaela had lain down her life. The child was not his daughter, but his enemy, the destroyer of his love. The aversion he felt was so intense that it robbed him of words with which to express it.
He is not the only sorrowing widower to blame an innocent child for existing but the endorsement of the negative feeling toward Magdalena by the all-powerful Catholic church and the isolation of the ranch means that her childhood is very narrow. She learns to dance but not to read, she has no friends but her brother, and even the grandmother who cares for her says, “Sorrow and death to those who love her!” Wouldn’t anyone fall in love unwisely in such a situation?
Malvern and her sister Corinne were brought up by their mother who was a theater company wardrobe mistress. The sisters performed on stage from a young age and Gladys made it her career for some time before getting a job at a department store and then in advertising in her twenties. Living in Los Angeles when she began writing professionally must have awakened her interest in California’s history.

I wondered about the publisher of this book, which was completely unfamiliar to me, and learned that Claude Kendall had a brief career in New York as an independent publisher, then was murdered at 47. Pulp fiction seems to have been the firm’s specialty so it is hard to understand where Malvern’s overly dramatic historical novel fits in. It is fortunate that she moved to New York in 1934 and started writing for young adults instead with publishers like Julian Messner. My favorite Malverns are Gloria, Ballet Dancer and Prima Ballerina, contemporary fiction about an aspiring dancer in New York and Behold Your Queen, about Queen Esther. In fact, several of her best books were inspired by the Old and New Testaments. Some are back in print but If Love Comes is so obscure I had never even heard the title.  Illustrator John Alan Maxwell was a well-known artist whose work included illustrations for books by Pearl Buck, Edna Ferber, John Steinbeck, and Aldous Huxley.
Source: Widener Library. This was dedicated to Malvern’s sister Corinne.  It is my twenty-seventh book for 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.  I will count it as fulfilling my “Time Capsule” category for Book Bingo.

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