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Should we hate María or pity her?

Some readers have said they hate Gabriel’s mother. They ask, ‘Why didn’t María seek to have Gabriel’s deformity surgically removed, and why, when he had the chance of an operation, did she oppose it?’

María was an illiterate peasant of limited intelligence and deeply religious. Thanks to her stern, mean-spirited parish priest, she was convinced Gabriel’s deformity was, ‘a punishment from God,’ and could only be removed by a miracle. (For María, Father Lazaro was God’s earthly representative, to be believed and obeyed implicitly.) She was convinced, therefore, that, if Gabriel had it surgically removed, he would be going against God’s will and would surely die.

Who was being punished by God and for what sin?

It seems clear Gabriel was the result of adultery – a wicked sin in the eyes of the Church and of María – but María’s background is only revealed little by little through the course of the novel, and only near the end do we learn the truth about Gabriel’s conception and the death of María’s husband Paco.

After his death, she was initially accused of murder – and, it would seem some people continue to blame her for his death. But she claims, and it seems likely under the circumstances, that he would have killed Gabriel. She claims Paco slipped and accidentally struck his head after she stopped him suffocating Gabriel – and then she escaped with her newborn love-child, leaving Paco unconscious and bleeding.

María’s secrecy and her opposition to a life-changing operation undoubtedly harmed Gabriel. But was she acting selfishly?
After you’ve read the book, consider Gabriel’s mother’s life – a life of devotion, religious and maternal duty, and above all, tragedy. In her position, with her religious beliefs – and with her limited intelligence – would you have acted differently? Should we hate María? Or pity her?

What is María’s history?
María grew up in the fictional hamlet of Riopena, among the mountains north of Aguazán. When she was fourteen, by which time her older brothers had moved to northern Spain in search of work, Riopena’s inhabitants were struck by cholera. María was sent to live with her mother’s elderly aunt in Aguazán. Everyone in Riopena died during the epidemic, so María, now an orphan, remained in Aguazán.

Once she turned sixteen, the priest urged her to find a husband. Being incredibly beautiful, she could take her pick. She chose Paco Sánchez, an agricultural worker who was both popular and handsome, and they moved into a house belonging to his family, next door to his sister and family. Within a year, Ángel was born.

Paco was proud of his beautiful wife; but his personality and attitude to María changed after she inadvertently caused him to be humiliated by the local landowner’s bestial son. Soon afterwards, although she was again pregnant, Paco started beating her.

In May 1952, María gave birth to her second child – and so began the story of Gabriel Sánchez.