Publication: Tammy 13 January 1979 to 3 March 1979
Artist: Maria Dembilio
Translations/Reprints: Tammy Holiday Special 1984
Mary Malloway is nicknamed “Mouse”, and it’s not just because she wears a mouse pendant. She is an extremely shy girl as a result of her upbringing with her solo mother, who has taught her to beware of strangers. Mary’s life is constantly disrupted because her mother changes locations so much, and always goes for shabby backstreet flats; she says it’s because they cannot afford decent accommodation – well, that’s what she says anyway. She is stringent with security, having them lock themselves into their bedrooms at night, and Mary has to be home from school on the dot. Mary feels as if they are in hiding and suspects Mum has a deeper motive for her actions.
At Mary’s latest school, Mary’s friend Sukie is determined to bring her out of her shell, and persuades her to enter a fancy dress competition. When Mary finds what looks like a peasant girl’s dress in her mother’s wardrobe, she enters the competition in it. Sukie is placed first, Mary second, and a reporter takes their photograph. Curiously, having her photo taken is another thing Mrs Malloway has never allowed Mary to do.
In a London hotel, two Sicilian brothers, Innocente and Salvatore Malvia, see the photograph. Salvatore recognises Mary as his daughter from the mouse pendant he gave her at her christening. He says they can now take her back to Sicily as La Mamma intended.
Meanwhile, Mary finds out that the peasant costume is actually her mother’s wedding dress. Mum explains that she married Salvatore Malvia on a holiday in Sicily, in defiance of her parents (who disowned her as a result) and Salvatore’s tyrannical mother, La Mamma. As a result, La Mamma did not make Mum welcome in her home, the Casa Malvia. Her attitude forced Mum to run away with Mary as soon as she was born. But ever since, Mum had lived in terror that the Malvia family would come and snatch Mary away from her. Hence the upbringing Mary has had. So Mary had been right about them living in hiding – in hiding from the Malvias. But that photograph had been the one slip that enabled the Malvias to find Mary. Soon after, Mum’s worst fears come true when Salvatore and Innocente abduct Mary and drag her off to Sicily.
At the Casa Malvia, Mary discovers that La Mamma only wants her back for one thing – to to marry her off to one Rico Cefalu in exchange for a vineyard from his family. La Mamma is a domineering matriarch who rules the Malvia household with an iron fist. She keeps her entire family under her thumb, treats them like servants, and expects them to obey her without question. Indeed, Salvatore and Innocente are terrified of her and completely under her thumb although they are now grown men. The Malvia family themselves rule Sicily with an iron hand and are all-powerful.
Mary is desperate to find a way to escape before the betrothal ceremony (fortunately she is not old enough for the marriage itself). She finds some stalling tactics, and also takes solace in a mouse she has befriended. But she can find no real way out of the iron grasp that La Mamma keeps over everyone, and finds people are too scared of La Mamma to help her. However, she does make it clear to her father that she is not happy about her forced betrothal to Rico.
Back in England, Mum has realised the reason for Mary’s disappearance. But the police say they cannot do much because it is the Sicilian court system that will apply, and they are known to be sympathetic to fathers. Mum knows it is up to her, but she does not have the wherewithal.
Meanwhile, Mary’s father teaches her to row during a fishing expedition. He also shows her Santa Agata where he married Mum. Mary is surprised at this, because she realises he will surely guess that she will use her knowledge about rowing to steal a boat and get to Santa Agata. She suspects her father is secretly helping her to escape.
But then the betrothal ceremony finally comes. Mary is particularly annoyed that she has not even met her arranged bridegroom beforehand (an all-too-common thing in the world of arranged marriages, Mary). When Mary steals a glimpse of an approaching boy who may be Rico (it’s not established if it is him), she becomes even more desperate to escape – he looks a cruel, bullying boy who would make an abusive husband. Mary takes a boat and tries to row to Santa Agata. But the currents are too strong and force her back. She nearly drowns but her father, who had anticipated this, rescues her.
However, Mary was right about Salvatore wanting to help her. For the second time in his life (the first was marrying Mum) he defies La Mamma. He found the courage after realising how unhappy Mary was. In so doing, he will be leaving La Mamma and the Casa Malvia forever, for there is no going back. “Innocente can take over there as La Mamma’s heir – as La Mamma’s walking, talking puppet!” He takes Mary to Santa Agata so she can telephone the British consul. When they arrive at Santa Agata, Mary asks to see the church where Salvatore married Mum. But when they arrive at the church, they are surprised to see Mum there too! Sukie’s father loaned her the money to fly to Sicily after Mary. Salvatore insists on repaying the loan himself as he feels guilty about kidnapping Mary. Mum, Salvatore and Mary are now one family and go for their first-ever meal together.
International parental child abduction and forced marriage – these things must have been a shock for the Tammy readers when they read this. It was pretty strong, daring stuff for a girl’s comic. Today, these themes in the story feel more relevant because international child abduction and girls being sold into forced marriages are so topical in the wake of cases like Not Without My Daughter, Sold, and the mass abduction of the Nigerian girls. For this reason, this serial now looks really ahead of its time and could be regarded as an underrated gem.
The story also touches on the issue of solo mothers who raise their children on their own. In real life, they often face disadvantage and even stigma, particularly in the welfare system. Mrs Malloway, who had defied her parents in order to follow her heart in marrying the man she loved, has her marriage blown apart by her unfriendly mother-in-law and her husband not having the guts to stand up to her. Plus there are differences in cultures that she clearly did not take into consideration, but the reality must have sunk in fast after the marriage. For example, this culture has arranged marriages and indebted slaves (the boy Seppi, for example, works for the Malvias in payment for a debt his family owes them). Mrs Mallory’s flight to England with Mary and having to raise Mary on her own, without a father or parents to help is far grimmer than what most solo mothers have to face because she also has the constant fear that her in-laws will come back for Mary.
There is no mention of the Mafia, but this is Sicily, the home ground of the Mafia, after all. The power the Malvias wield in Sicily sounds as tyrannical and frightening as that of the Mafia, though without the violence. Indeed, if the Malvias were the Mafia, La Mamma would be the Godfather. Come to think of it, there is a similarity in the names: Malvia and Mafia.
The story also touches briefly on the fate that so many girls sold into forced marriages so often face – cruel husbands and domestic abuse. When Mary sees the boy who may be her betrothed husband (the boy’s identity is not clarified) she realises she will be sold into one such marriage if it is indeed Rico, and she will have a very lucky escape if she can pull it off. Even if the boy is not Rico, we feel for any girl who gets betrothed to him, because he is a cruel boy who would make a cruel husband.
In the end everything works out happily, with Mary not only escaping but also helping to reunite her parents and mend their broken marriage and years of separation. We can see they on their way to becoming one complete, happy family unit. Seldom does any child abduction that arises from a marriage of mixed cultures end so well for the parties concerned.