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Book Review: Malinalli of the Fifth Sun: The Slave Girl Who Changed the Fate of Mexico and Spain by Helen Heightsman Gordon

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Malinalli of the Fifth Sun: The Slave Girl Who Changed the Fate of Mexico and Spain by Helen Heightsman Gordon is a historical fiction novel taking place in South America during Hernán Cortés’ time. Malinalli was an important person in Cortés’ entourage who has been vilified throughout the ages.

Born to a high class family, Malinalli’s life take a turn to worst when her beloved father dies. Her stepfather intends on harming her, but instead sells her to slavery. In 1519, Malinalli becomes one of 20 slaves given to Conquistador Hernán Cortés and starts her Christian life as Marina or Doña Marina.

Not only beautiful, but also a gifted translator, Malinalli becomes in integral part of Cortés’ professional and personal life. In fact Cortés and Mailinalli become such an integral part of each other that they were referred to by the same name –La Malinche.

The story is told through various viewpoints: Cortés’, Malinalli’s family, and acquaintances, but mainly of Malinalli since this is her story. Since the history is complex, even though the story spans a relatively short time (about 16 years) there are parts of the book which simply read as a history book (albeit a very interesting one) in order to move he story faster.

The main reason I found that the author chose to tell the story thorough various points of view, especially those whom I think are not actual historical characters (village traders, wife of a chief, etc.) is to introduce the reader into early culture, religion, and traditions of the indigenous Mexican people. The author brought up points in the book which, through the story, give the reader some food for thought. For example, the Spanish trying to Christianize the locals, claiming their G-d is the one true G-d and bashing idol worshiping. They broke and disgraced the locals’ idols only to replace them with their own idols.

I’m glad I read this book, it taught me a lot about a culture I knew almost nothing about, in a very interesting manner. To be honest I almost passed on it because the cover looked like some sort of quickly put together tourist guide. I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and this novel is a prime example of that saying–but we all do (at least we all pre-judge a book by its cover).

The research in Malinalli of the Fifth Sun is superb and the storytelling excellent and flows smoothly. Ms. Heightsman Gordon writes without prejudice Cortés does some very good things as well as the bad things we all remember. Mallinali, who is known as a traitor just as much as a heroine, is also fully fleshed out, written as a real person with hopes, faults and tragedies. The Spanish attitude that they know everything better is something that we should take to heart whenever we look down on another culture, even if they seem “backwards.”

The author includes pronunciation guides, a calendar which approximates the Aztec calendar to the European one, a short but wonderful explanation of how the ancients counted their days, and more wonderful features (unfortunately no maps), which really enhance the reading experience. Together with a reading list which the author suggests, her blog is also a fountain of information about the subject which is highly recommended.

  • 672 pages
  • Publisher: iUniverse
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1462064930

Buy this book in paper or electronic format.

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  • Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed.D.

    This was an excellent review. Mr. Zoster not only read the book and understood it, but found some of the underlying themes about human nature in all cultures.

  • Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed.D.

    Oops. I meant to say Mr. Zohar. Thanks for an excellent review.

  • Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed.D.

    Thanks for posting this excellent review.
    Mr. Zohar has corrected the author’s name on his web site. Could you please correct it also? It should be
    Helen Heightsman Gordon

  • Fixed; the editor droid responsible has been re-programmed…

  • Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed.D.

    Thanks very much. I really appreciate your interest in this wonderful piece of history that has been misunderstood in the past.
    Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed.D.