Night of Sorrows
If you only knew the basic plot of Frances Sherwood’s Night of Sorrows, you might think it was a novel set in the 21st century. It’s a story about an invasion done in the name of a higher good with an ulterior motive of wealth. And it’s hard to tell who the good guys are because both sides are nowhere close to being saints. But this isn’t a story about America’s invasion of Iraq, Middle East terrorism, oil or the altruistic spread of democracy. Night of Sorrows is about Spain’s invasion of Mexico in the 16th century, the Aztec’s belief in human sacrifice, gold and spreading the word of Jesus. As Night of Sorrows so effectively illustrates – history always seems to repeat.
Sherwood’s historical novel takes the reader on a journey, following the conquistadors Hernan Cortes’ journey from the shores of Mexico to the heart of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan. Night of Sorrows is not about judgment. Instead, it’s an examination of human nature for both the Spanish and the Aztecs. It shows the humanity and violence on each side from the Spaniard’s slaughter of the natives to the Aztec’s ritual sacrifice of innocent citizens. Nowhere is this more evident with Cortes, who is at moments kind and nurturing (making love to the story’s narrator, Malintzin, or saving a mother and baby’s life in a difficult pregnancy) and the next vicious and cruel (raping Malintzin and chopping off the hands of his enemies).
Perhaps the most interesting character in Night of Sorrows is Malintzin, Cortes’ famed translator. Born as a princess and sold into slavery by her own mother, she falls in love with Cortes when he treats her as more than a slave. But once Cortes’ feelings turn, Malintzin is able to see more clearly what is happening to her country and tries to fight back.
Night of Sorrows not only offers a map of conquest but also a blueprint for human behavior and impulses. While we can’t say for sure exactly what really happened during the invasion of the New World, we can remember that nothing is ever black and white, and that there’s room for evil in good intentions and vice versa. Perhaps the best lesson Sherwood’s novel offers is that despite what is happening in the world, there is still beauty and good. The trick is knowing to look for it.