A surprising revelation inspires Lorraine López’s new novel ‘The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters’
by Joan Brasher
photo by John Russell
Mysterious identities. Untimely death. Sisterhood. Redemption. These are the stones that form the foundation of Assistant Professor of English Lorraine López’s intriguing new novel The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters (Grand Central Publishing).
In stores Oct. 1, the story begins in 1966 in Los Angeles, where the Gabaldón sisters live with their widowed father and an elderly Pueblo housekeeper, Fermina.
Still reeling from their mother’s death, Loretta, Bette, Rita and Sophia often turn to the mystical Fermina for emotional and spiritual guidance. Though she is frail and without means, Fermina assures the girls that upon her death each will receive a special gift from her. Over time, they try to imagine what their inheritance could be, suspecting it is of a magical sort.
After Fermina’s passing, Loretta, an animal lover, discovers she may be able to heal wounded creatures. Bette, a storyteller, has the ability to captivate those around her with her tales (whether true or not). Tomboy Rita seems to have the awesome power to curse her enemies with a disparaging word. And the jovial Sophia has a way of inspiring laughter in even the direst situations.
But are these the gifts Fermina was talking about? And who was she, really?
Over the next two decades, the sisters embark on journeys of discovery in search of answers to questions about their mother, their past, their own identities as women and the mysterious Fermina.
The novel’s premise draws from López’s own history. Born in Los Angeles, she comes from a large family with ties to central New Mexico. A decade ago, López discovered that her paternal grandfather was actually the biological son of his adopted father’s brother (his uncle) and a Pueblo servant who worked in the family’s home.
“My aunts were very hush-hush about the circumstances of my grandfather’s birth,” she said. “We knew he was adopted, but we did not know from whom, or why. After his death, I asked about his adoption, and they felt they could divulge the circumstances.”
After this revelation, the seed of a novel took root. López began researching her grandfather’s history through birth, death and baptismal records and learned more about the enslavement of Native Americans at the turn of the century.
“The records show that there were families who had five people baptized all at once,” she said. “It’s pretty clear those were slaves. They took the family’s name, and it was done in a discreet way. Children born from relationships with these slaves would often end up in asilos de huerfanos – orphanages – which were really asylums for warehousing unwanted children.”
López is forthright about dealing with serious issues in her writing. Alcoholism, sexual and drug abuse and rape all come into play as the Gabaldón sisters come of age. But humor is woven in as well, evidence of López’s ability to craft multidimensional characters, each with her own distinctive voice.
“For me, as a writer, I found it was great to switch voices,” López said. “I just imagined the character and it was almost like she inhabited me for a time.”
In 2003, López was honored with the Independent Publishers Book Award for Multicultural Fiction and the Latino Literary Hall of Fame’s Latino Book Award for Short Stories for her collection Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories. Despite that success, she said she prefers writing novels to short stories because of the time and space the novel genre affords her characters to develop and grow.
“The short story is the puzzle that I’m always working on – it’s a challenge. To create a complete literary experience in such a short measure of time and space is, to me, more like writing a poem. I think the novel is my natural talent and I feel very comfortable with it now. It fits my way of walking in the world.”
Her first novel, Call Me Henri (Curbstone Press, 2006), was written from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy named Enrique who struggles with life as a middle schooler. He juggles his family responsibilities, language and cultural challenges, and the ever-present pressure to fit in. The work earned her the Paterson Prize for Young Adult Literature.
López is already working on her next novel, titled Limpieza.
“Limpieza is a first-person narrative about a woman on a spiritual quest who has no aptitude for matters of the spirit,” she said. “It’s akin to a tone-deaf person’s desire to become an accomplished musician.”
As she has done with her previous books, she’s taking a “very working-class approach” to writing it.
“You have to turn up for work every day, be there in the morning, ready to write – even if it’s going to be rewritten later,” she said. “But that’s not a problem for me, because I enjoy the process very much. I have heard that the only thing worse than writing is not writing. There is some truth to that, but apart from that I think writing is tremendous fun.”