Magdalena

TITLE: “Magdalena”

AUTHOR: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

PUBLISHER: Plain View Press (August 8, 2008)

REVIEW PUBLISHED IN: World Literature Today, April-June 2003 v77 i1 p100 by Kathleen Flanagan

CECILIA MANGUERRA BRAINARD’S novel Magdalena takes its title from a protagonist descended from several generations of equally compelling female characters. Brainard’s earlier novel When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (1994) employed the viewpoint of an adolescent girl to recount the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II. With Magdalena Brainard uses a nonlinear narrative and multiple points of view to describe the history of the Philippines that roughly corresponds to its contact with the United States from the Spanish-American War to the war in Vietnam. Magdalena begins and ends with the perspective of Juana, daughter of the title character and her American lover (a POW in Vietnam), who is herself pregnant and curious about her family history. Letters, diaries, and narratives from numerous characters help Juana reconstruct her maternal and, to a lesser extent, paternal lineage.


Stories of the women in Magdalena’s family are woven together to demonstrate the dependency of the present on the events of the past. Magdalena’s grandfather, a Filipino nationalist who fought the American military after the Spanish-American War, writes in his journal, “There must be two Americas, one that sets the captive free and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on, then kills him to get his land.” Such interactions with the United States, and similar earlier experiences with Spain, emphasize the importance of power to some characters, who reject love matches for marriages with financial and social advantages. The broken romances of Magdalena’s mother and grandmothers affect their treatment of their daughters, just as the entwined histories of the United States and the Philippines throw into relief the American involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s setting of the novel.


Magdalena’s absent American lover, Nathan Spenser, is portrayed through old letters as well as through segments describing the activities of his country in the Philippines. One of his remaining letters explains the patriotic impulses that led him to enlist but also records his disillusionment with the American war in Vietnam. Spenser’s early idealism is juxtaposed with descriptions such as that of a U.S. colonel who gives a speech at a newly opened child-care center for prostitutes’ children, many of whom are half-American, and begins to see Filipinos as more than “hearts and minds” to be won in support of the effort to spread American democracy in Asia.


The novel brings into focus not only the romantic and social conflicts of different generations of women but also economic and racial divisions in the Philippines. Magdalena’s great-grandfather on her father’s side is an immigrant from China, and his daughter finds it difficult to enter the highest levels of Philippine society, just as lower economic and social standing make it difficult for Magdalena’s irascible mother, Luisa, to marry the man she loves. Interspersed throughout the novel are archival photographs of places and people, photographs that remind the reader that while the characters are fictional, the backdrop is historical reality.

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