Essays and Criticism
The Connections Between Magda and Gabriela
In Tessa Bridal’s The Tree of Red Stars, Magda, the protagonist of the story, grows up in the midst of many female characters. Those closest to her include Emilia, a young girl Magda’s age, whom the protagonist has known since elementary school. Emilia has a gentle soul that attracts Magda to her. It is through her that Magda learns to see people as creatures with emotions, people who need to be nurtured, whereas Magda had tended to view the people around her as mysterious puzzles or strange machines that she would like to take apart to better understand how they work. Emilia is a caretaker, whereas Magda is a scientist. Magda is also an adventurer, often including Emilia in her escapades, with Emilia usually giving in but reluctantly so.
Another childhood friend who influences Magda’s early life is Cora, whose exotic family culture lures both Magda and Emilia to want to get to know her. They are awed by Cora’s strong connection with her father, something neither Magda nor Emilia enjoys. They soon learn, however, that because of her father’s overprotection, Cora remains somewhat a prisoner in her home, denied the free rein that Magda and Emilia enjoy to casually play in the river or to pull childish pranks. It is from Cora that Magda learns a new form of defiance, as Cora slowly moves away from her father’s control, deceiving him in order to establish her own identity. Magda also celebrates Cora’s decision to elope with a young lover of her choice rather than to marry a man whom her parents have chosen for her.
These girls share Magda’s childhood with her on an almost daily basis. They live in her neighborhood, enjoying the same easy lifestyle of comfort afforded by wealth. That neighborhood is many miles away from the Cerro, the tallest hill in Uruguay, abandoned by all but a few soldiers who are stationed at the museum on the summit and “by the city’s poorest residents, who lived on the hillside in houses made from the city’s leftovers.” It is on this hill that Gabriela lives in a house made of cardboard and newspapers, a drastically different environment from that in which Magda lives. However, despite the disparate economics that influence their lives, there are strong similarities that drive Magda toward Gabriela, that make her want to get to know her.
Gabriela is introduced in the first chapter of the novel and is described first by the color of her hair, the only other “redheaded young woman” in the story besides Magda; and, next, there is mention of the fact that she is “driving a rather fine horse,” which stands in stark difference to the normally “tough and dusty” horses that other people from the Cerro drive, thus immediately setting Gabriela in a somewhat elevated position. Gabriela is also said to have physical features that “in a different time and place would have made her a movie star.” The fact that, immediately following her introduction, Magda devises a plan in which she and Emilia will hide in the back of the young woman’s wagon in order to go back to the Cerro to see where Gabriela lives makes the reader aware that this redheaded eighteen-year-old holds great significance.
Gabriela, although still a teen, brings a child with her when she visits Magda’s mother. The child is still a very young baby, and Bridal emphasizes that not only is Magda interested in Gabriela, she is also fascinated with the little baby boy that Gabriela carries. In many ways, Gabriela represents exactly the opposite of Magda’s potential. Gabriela is the mistress of a married man. She will give birth to several children over the course of the story. For Gabriela, being the mistress of a man of money and social standing might be the most that she can wish for. Her options in the Uruguayan society, during the time of the novel, are slight.
Magda, on the other hand, will fall in love with a neighborhood boy, with whom she will never have children. Her only other sexual relations will be protected, it is subtly suggested, as the issue of condoms is somewhat obliquely mentioned. Magda also not only has the option of going to college, but it is assumed from childhood that she will eventually attain a degree. Magda’s options are multiple, given to her because of her family’s connections and high standing in a society that at one time was considered one of the most successful welfare states in the world. It is therefore through a comparison of Magda and Gabriela that Bridal characterizes the political, social, and economic changes that...
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Key Images in The Tree of Red Stars
Bridal’s The Tree of Red Stars is a novel of almost infinite delicacy that also possesses the force of a sudden, hard punch in the stomach. Its poetic richness includes a few key images—especially the tree and the river—that encapsulate the essence of the novel, while the plot gives much food for thought about the phenomenon of terrorism and the relations between Latin America and the United States.
It is the images that remain indelibly imprinted in the mind long after the reader has finished the novel. The most prominent is that of the old poinsettia tree, which is the “tree of red stars” of the title. This is a reference to the fact that in winter the tree flowers red. Magda thinks it looks like “a hundred small fires holding the cold at bay.” This image of the tree that flowers red reverberates at so many levels that it comes to embrace the totality of human life, in pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, even life and death. It carries the subtlest themes of the novel.
As a young girl, Magda spends many hours sitting in the branches of the poinsettia tree, spending many of those hours with her friend Emilia. The tree is Magda’s favorite place, and it is associated in her mind with many of the most important things that have happened in her life, especially the time when she and Emilia “started our journey together into young adulthood.” Significantly, these events are often heralded when the tree begins to produce its red flowers. It is in winter, for example, when Magda and Emilia spot from the tree their future friend and Tupamaros comrade, Cora. It is also when the tree flowers red that they first see Ramiro, Cora’s future husband, also a future member of the Tupamaros.
What is the significance of the image? The color red is traditionally the color of passion, and it is also the color of blood. The red blossom of the tree therefore symbolizes love and suffering (pas- sion also means suffering, as in the passion of Christ on the cross). This suffering is both mental and physical. Love and suffering are inextricably linked as the two qualities that dominate Magda’s life and the lives of the other main characters. It is Magda’s love for the beggar Gabriela, and her outrage at the woman’s cruel death by torture, that deepens her involvement with the Tupamaros. During Magda’s imprisonment, it is her love for the men whom she can hear being tortured in the cell above that sustains both her and the men (as she finds out when she encounters one of them many years later on the riverbank). It is Marco’s love for Magda that precipitates his arrest and his premature death, seven long years later, from the injuries inflicted by torture. It is Magda’s love for him that motivates her to go into exile to fight for his release. The love of Ramiro and Cora is also presented in romantic terms. Theirs is an ideal, passionate love that endures separation and torture. In every case, love and suffering of the most extreme kind are linked.
The significance of the image of the redflowering tree does not end there. The young girls perceive the flowers as they gaze upwards from their perch in the lower branches. For Magda, it appears as if the red blossoms are stars in the heavens. After one incident in which she overhears a quarrel between her cousin and her mother, she and Emilia take refuge in the poinsettia tree and happen to look up, where they see that “One perfect star had bloomed a bright, piercing red.” This evocative image suggests that if love, suffering (passion), and blood are inextricably mixed, as the two maturing girls will shortly discover, those qualities are also exalted, raised up and woven into the very fabric and heart of life. They express a kind of unshakable, eternal, even glorious perfection, for which the appropriate image can only be a bright red star shining in the heavens.
It might also not be superfluous to mention Magda’s comment that whatever sex education she ever had came as a consequence of sitting in the tree, since from her perch she was able to eavesdrop on the conversations of her two older female cousins. The quarrel between Magda’s mother and Sofía, which immediately precedes Magda’s moment of epiphany when she sees the “red stars,” is over sexual matters, and Sofía dares to raise the previously forbidden topic of female sexuality and female sexual needs. This suggests yet another layer of meaning for the color red, since the emergence of sexuality is inseparable from the female menstrual cycle, which is itself a marker of the passage from childhood to adulthood. Since one of the novel’s themes is Magda’s coming-of-age, and she directly associates this with the hours spent in the poinsettia tree, there is clearly an association between the physical emergence into womanhood and the condition of exalted love and suffering that the “red stars” represent.
By making the tree of red stars such a significant symbol in the novel, Bridal also taps into a complex of mythological and religious associations conjured up by the tree image. With its roots in the earth and its branches reaching heavenwards, the tree is an apt symbol for human and cosmic life and has...
(The entire section is 2125 words.)