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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1873

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First published: 1918

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: Cordoba and the hill country of northern Argentina

Principal Characters:

Gracian Palma, an orphan

Don Jesus de Viscarra, his guardian

Mirra, Don Jesus' daughter

Flavia, Don Jesus' sister

Don PabloCamargo, a neighboring landowner and Don Jesus' enemy

Victoria, daughter of Flavia and Don Pablo

Lazarus, a creole overseer

Amoroso, Flavia's devoted peon

Pichana, an old beggar woman

The Story

Gracian Palma was in his fourteenth year when his father died suddenly, and the boy, already motherless, became the ward of Senor Palma's old and trusted friend, Don Jesus de Viscarra. Gracian had seen Don Jesus only once in his life; he remembered him as a tall, distinguished-looking man whom his father described as the owner of Black Valley—"where the wind roars," his father had added. To Gracian these words seemed to cast an air of mystery about Don Jesus and his home.

Shortly after Senor Palma's death, Don Jesus visited Gracian at the convent school in Cordoba and promised to take him to Black Valley for the summer. On the last day of the term, Don Jesus appeared at the school, and that afternoon, they took a train for Cosquin. From there they traveled by horseback through a wild, hilly countryside that reminded Gracian of fairies and witches. Darkness fell long before they arrived at the ranch house, where Gracian met the other members of Don Jesus' family—his young daughter Mirra and his sister Flavia. While they were at supper, a harsh scream sounded from the darkness outside. Flavia said that the cry had been made by old Pichana. Lazarus, the creole overseer, spoke up to say that he had seen Pichana about a league away on the road to Cosquin. Gracian felt that there was some mystery at Black Valley that he did not understand.

The next morning, Don Jesus left to visit his brother, a rancher in the sierras, and Gracian was free to play with Mirra. While they were eating some roasted corn near a willow grove, the boy saw an old black woman in ragged clothes crouched in the fork of one of the trees. Mirra said that the crone was Pichana, a beggar whom many people believed a witch, but really a harmless old woman. Later the girl pointed out the house of the neighboring landowner. She said that Don Pablo Camargo claimed part of Don Jesus' land and that Flavia was unkind to her because she had once quarreled with Victoria, Don Pablo's daughter. When they returned home, Flavia drew Gracian aside and asked him if he had seen anyone on the Camargo estate.

Because of a boundary dispute, the Camargos and the Viscarras had been enemies for several generations. Don Jesus had been prepared to forget the ancient grudge until Don Pablo met Flavia de Viscarra and fell in love with her. Because of the young man's reputation for wildness and violence, Don Jesus refused to consent to his sister's engagement to his family's enemy, and he had sent her to live with some distant relatives. There she had stayed, nursing her resentment, until Don Jesus' wife died and Flavia came to live at Black Valley as his housekeeper. What Don Jesus did not know, however, was that Flavia had secretly given birth to Don Pablo's child, the little girl Victoria. For a time after her return to Black Valley, Flavia had avoided her former lover, but at last her desire to see her daughter had drawn her to him. When he arrived at their meeting place, Don Pablo would imitate Pichana's wild screech and Flavia would steal out to join him. Although she was deeply disturbed in her own conscience by her deceit, she continued to meet him because she hoped that he would sometime bring Victoria with him. Except for Amoroso, the only resident of Black Valley who knew Flavia's secret was Lazarus, the overseer. In love with Flavia, he spied on her movements and followed her when she left the house to meet Don Pablo.

So matters stood when Gracian came to Black Valley. A few days later, Don Jesus announced that Don Pablo had begun a suit for possession of the disputed land. That night a heavy thunderstorm was brewing. Gracian, unable to sleep, saw Flavia walking in the courtyard. Toward midnight he was awakened by a clap of thunder. Mirra, frightened, came to his room and said that the sound had been a shot. The children discovered that Flavia was not in her room. The next morning, the events seemed like a dream until Gracian and Mirra found one of the watchdogs dead, shot through his throat.

One day Mirra took Gracian to the place of the winds, great caves at the bottom of a river gorge where Pichana's hut stood. A storm came up while they were exploring the caverns through which the wind roared, and they found it impossible to climb out of the canyon. Pichana found the children in the cave in which they had taken refuge and led them back to Don Jesus' house. On another day, Gracian met Victoria, who became angry when she learned that he came from Black Valley.

Gracian returned to school in Cordoba. By the time he came to Black Valley in the spring, Flavia had conceived a plan: Gracian must fall in love with Victoria, marry her, and so restore the girl to her mother. That summer, with the aid of Lazarus, Flavia met Victoria and revealed herself as the child's mother. A short time later, Lazarus began to approach Flavia with bold flattery, and she was forced to reprove him. Consequently, when Don Jesus received a letter accusing Flavia of having secret meetings with Don Pablo, she was sure that Lazarus was the writer. To her dismay, she saw that the handwriting was Don Pablo's.

That winter, Mirra learned Flavia's secret from Pichana. Also, Gracian's uncle, who had been living abroad, returned and wrote to Don Jesus saying that he wanted his nephew to spend the next vacation with him. Mirra grieved because Gracian would not be coming to Black Valley for the summer. The next three years brought more changes. Flavia no longer went to meet Don Pablo, and at times Don Pablo acted like a madman as his love and hatred grew more intense. Lazarus, still in love with Flavia, overstepped at last the bounds of a servant, and Don Jesus discharged him. The creole swore to be revenged. While he waited to ambush Don Jesus on the road from Cosquin, Don Pablo suddenly appeared and shot the master of Black Valley; the lawsuit was finally decided in Don Jesus' favor, and Don Pablo was wild with fury. Don Jesus died after asking that the law not pursue his murderer.

Although the police suspected both Don Pablo and Lazarus, nothing could be proved against either man. Don Pablo moved with Victoria to Cosquin. One day he was seen whitewashing a wall—a peon's work—and people began to say that his mind was affected. Then, wishing to be near her daughter, Flavia also went to Cosquin and secured an appointment as a teacher in the government school. Left alone, Mirra decided to open a school of her own for the children of the district.

Some years passed before Gracian returned from his travels abroad. Bored with life in Cordoba, he went to see Flavia in Cosquin where she was taking care of Don Pablo, now a broken, sad man. There Gracian met Victoria again, and the two fell in love. Gracian, who had never forgotten Mirra, would have broken off the affair with Victoria if Flavia had not talked to him and shamed him. One day he saw Mirra at mass, and all his old affection for her was reborn. Months later, after Flavia had heard that Gracian was staying at Black Valley and that he and Mirra were soon to be married, she went to her niece and begged for her own daughter's happiness and good name. Mirra did not hesitate between duty and love. She sent Gracian back to Victoria, the mother of his unborn child.

Critical Evaluation:

BLACK VALLEY—in the original, VALLE NEGRO—is subtitled "A Romance of the Argentine." The romantic elements of the novel are readily apparent. A story of a primitive way of life and elemental emotions, the action has been staged against a background of wild natural beauty. Hugo Wast's settings are real, as are his people and the way of life he presents. Lacking certain of the didactic elements found in STONE DESERT, this work reveals to excellent advantage the novelist of character and the painter of landscapes. The plot, although episodic in form, is well ordered, and the story moves forward with increasing emotional and dramatic interest as the writer unfolds the dual theme presented through the ill-fated love of Flavia and Don Pablo and the relationship of spoiled, weak Gracian and strong, devoted Mirra. The style is vigorous, precise, and pure.

It is a fertile work that embodies Wast's basic writing techniques—the use of a clear style, sustained suspense, melodrama, deep interest, and spontaneous sprouting of the story. Wast used Argentine geography in all of his backgrounds and spent most of his life in Santa Fe Province, in Argentina's Far West. BLACK VALLEY is thus laced with local color, life-style, and personality. Even the title reflects the novel's tone, for this wind-whipped, isolated valley has weird beauty such as hidden caves, wild beasts, wild flowers, and a misty, Nordic beauty. The latter flavor perhaps reflects Wast's political bent, since, after becoming Argentina's Minister of Education shortly before World War II, he was accused of pro-German and anti-Semitic views. In any event, Wast's earlier and prolonged popularity with Argentine readers might have stemmed not only from his nationalism but also from his knack of jerking urban readers out of their stifling settings and, through sublimation, establishing them in rustic beauty and peace.

BLACK VALLEY was sneeringly dismissed in a local contest as being beneath consideration but promptly became a best-seller and won a gold medal from the prestigious Spanish Academy, which paid Wast the added honor of including his Argentine idiomatic expressions in its dictionary. Written with slight touches of Alexandre Dumas, BLACK VALLEY is readable and entertaining. Its characters are not too numerous, nor do they enter and leave the story like shooting stars but steadily grow as a function of the plot. BLACK VALLEY also reflects Wast's tastes for blending romantic idealism in his imaginative elements with costumbrista realism in his observed elements. He almost attains a biblical flavor when describing individual misfortunes. Manias, foolishness, odd notions, and other human failings are lampooned.

Wast was educated by Jesuits just before the end of the nineteenth century. He felt that women were morally superior to men and excoriated cruelty, selfishness, and the flint-hearted rich. Atheism and Communism were attacked in his oceanic literary output, but he also criticized clergymen who lacked spartan qualities. In his novels, large cathedrals are considered inferior to small and humble churches that serve as oases of peace for individuals suffering affliction.