Series Title: Rivers Trilogy
Book 1: Before We Died
Book 2: Gifts for the Dead
Book 3: River Aria
Author: Joan Schweighardt
Publisher: Five Directions Press
About the Book:
Two young men battle corruption, the forces of nature, and their own weaknesses (including the issue of their love for the same woman) in the deepest part of the Brazilian jungle. In 1908 two Irish American brothers leave their jobs on the docks of Hoboken, NJ to make their fortune tapping rubber trees in the South American rainforest. They expect to encounter floods, snakes, malaria, extreme hunger and unfriendly competitors, but nothing prepares them for the psychological hurdles that will befall them. BEFORE WE DIED, the first in a three-book “rivers” series, is a literary adventure novel set against the background of the South American rubber boom, a fascinating but little known historical moment.
About the Book:
Jack Hopper is holding tight to his secret, though it gets heavier by the day. Nora Sweeny is tired of suffering losses and ready to improvise. Their relationship, based on Jack’s lies and Nora’s pragmatism, builds against a background that includes World War I (as experienced from the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey) and escalates when Jack and Nora travel together to the rainforests of South America seeking closure for a life-shattering event that occurred years earlier. Equal parts romance, adventure, and psychological suspense tale, Gifts for the Dead shines a floodlight on the characters’ deepest yearnings and greatest fears.
About the Book:
It’s 1928 and Estela Euquério Hopper, an ambitious young woman from an impoverished area of Brazil, has landed a job at the NY Metropolitan Opera House, though only to work in the sewing room. Her good fortune is due in part to a unique and rigorous education provided to her (and a handful of other “river brats”) by a renowned educator and operatic vocal instructor from Portugal. The other part is due to the fact that her father is American. She hopes to make it from the Met sewing room to the Met stage, but there are three huge obstacles standing in her way: her father, her cousin (who has been kept in the dark regarding his own parentage), and the wild, anything goes, often violent temperament of New York City herself.
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Links to posts on Reading Nook:
Author Interview for Before We Died
Book Blitz for Gifts for the Dead
Excerpt from River Aria:
Context: 1928. Manhattan. Estela, who grew up in Manaus, Brazil, a city that rose to splendor during the rubber boom only to fall into decay when the boom ended abruptly and all the rubber barons fled, has arrived in New York—a feat made possible for a mixed-blood girl in those times only because her father is American. Estela, the narrator of River Aria, is to work at the Metropolitan Opera House, albeit in the sewing room. Her first viewing of the grand structure leads her to recall how—thanks to a twist of fate—she came to study opera in the first place, in the vestibule of the Teatro Amazonas, the great opera house built by the rubber barons back in Manaus.
We were river brats back then, all of us. We could pull hooks from piranhas blindfolded. Our skinny brown arms could bail water out of boats, and out of the shacks we lived in when they had to, night and day. We ran off to the jungle on school days whenever we heard the call—all of us, leaving our teacher with not the least idea how to punish us. We knew what vines contained fresh water, and we carried knives to cut them. We weren’t afraid to eat termites when we couldn’t find fruit. We wore our only shoes only on Sundays, when we raced one another up the hill to what used to be the rich people’s province and prayed at Igreja de São Sebastião for protection for our manioc gardens and good health.
But when Carlito Camilo first saw us, scurrying over the docks like rodents, he didn’t see river brats at all. Carlito Camilo saw what no one else could have possibly seen: the world’s next generation of elite performers. He gathered us around him at once, and while he fed us the colorful candies—Wine Gums, he called them, though they contained no wine at all—he carried in his pockets at all times, he told us he could teach us music, and more. He could teach us languages, poetry, myths and legends from parts of the world we had never even heard of. As he had already amassed as much wealth as he thought he would need to last as long as he thought he should be allowed to live, he wanted no payment either—which was excellent, because none of our families could have given him a single centavo. I was the first of a dozen or so river brats to commit myself to his program. I was nine then, almost ten.
Were it not for Carlito Camilo, I would not know the difference between an aria and a soup spoon, nor would I care. I’d be sitting down at the docks with Mamãe, content as a bôto, singing river stories and repairing nets, or I’d be up at the restaurant with Tia Louisa, serving cachaça to men who never tired of trying to look down my dress when I bent over their table. I would still believe our bumba meu boi, an elaborate, loudly sung, foot-stomping performance that told the story of the life and death of an ox, was the highest form of entertainment ever conceived. But the truth is, I first went to Carlito Camilo not because I ached to learn but because I heard he would be giving his lessons in the lobby (the city commissioners would not allow even the great Senhor Camilo to instruct in the theatre proper) of the Teatro Amazonas. And I wanted to see the inside of the Teatro Amazonas, badly, even if it was only the entrance.
The Teatro Amazonas had been at the heart of my fantasies since I was very small. At night, when I turned into a beautiful princess like the ones in the stories Mamãe sometimes told me, it was in the Teatro Amazonas that my prince and I danced. When I was Iara, the half-fish river creature, it was to the Teatro Amazonas that I dragged my scaly tailfin seeking the prince whose kiss would render me human at last.
I pulled open the heavy doors and entered the lobby of the Teatro Amazonas on the day and time Carlito Camilo had scheduled for me. He was there, sitting on a marble bench against the wall all alone. His sour look turned at once into a smile and he got up to greet me, but when he saw that my eyes were all for the marble floors, the crystal chandeliers, the frescoes and statues, the ornate carvings on the ceiling, he sat down again.
Carlito Camilo waited patiently, perhaps for a full five minutes, to have my attention. Then he asked me to sing for him.
Standing there in middle of the grand lobby of the Teatro Amazonas, I could not have said if I was asleep or awake. I was barefoot, and wearing a shapeless stained shirt that fell below my knees, beneath it only my underwear. Were you nervous? everyone would ask later. I had no answer. There was no room in the moment for contemplating the state of my nerves.
I sang a folk song my mother had taught me, about a child who disappears in the jungle and returns years later, a grown man with his arms laden with gold. He offers the gold to save his people from starvation, but it’s not enough for them. They want to know where he found such a hoard and if there was more. And they don’t believe him when he says there was no more and that he found it years earlier, when he first lost his way, and it had taken all this time to find his way home with it. So the men of the village leave their wives and children weeping and go off themselves to search for more gold, and not one of them ever returns. The song was a simple one, simple rhythms based on mostly whole notes.
Carlito Camilo watched me expressionlessly all the while I sang, and then for another moment afterwards. Finally he said, “That was a story I didn’t know, a good choice, garotinha. I think you must be a girl who sings all the time. Is that true?”
I shrugged. I didn’t sing all the time. Sometimes I slept and sometimes I ate, and I could not sing sleeping or eating. Nor did I sing in school, except to myself. But otherwise, yes. Who didn’t sing? We were all songbirds in Manaus. Even the gruffest old fisherman could be coaxed to sing a river song when we gathered together for festivals or late some nights, when Tia Louisa locked the restaurant’s front door and opened the one in the back.
“Now let me ask you,” he went on, “are you a smart girl who learns quickly?”
No one had ever asked the question before. I nodded.
Carlito Camilo got up slowly from his marble bench and approached me. “You have a good voice, but I want to ask you: what do you feel when you sing, garotinha?”
What kind of a question was that? I shook my head the other way. I didn’t know what he wanted from me.
He patted his chest with his fingertips, hard and fast. “In your heart, garotinha! In your heart! What do you feel in your heart?”
He wasn’t frightening me, but I could see he was looking for a specific answer, one I didn’t happen to have. Senhor Camilo was a short man, but I was a child, so he seemed enormous looming over me like that, his jowls aquiver. He bent over even more, until our faces were almost touching, though his was at a peculiar angle. Now he tapped my chest with his fingertips, lightly. Softly, slowly, as if each word was meant to survive all on its own, he asked, “Does your singing ever make you feel like you have a little red-throated hummingbird in here?”
Now I saw what he was driving at: the little tremble that happened sometimes when I sang very loud. All at once I was overwhelmed by the fanciful notion that Carlito Camilo was a king, and I was a princess, and that was why we were there in our castle, standing eye to eye, talking about my heart. Typical of all adults, he was trying to make me understand something I already knew!
“Sing for me again,” he said, straightening but not moving away. “Sing very loud.”
“What would you like?” I asked.
“A note. A single note. AHHHHHHH!”
I sang it: “AHHHHHHH!”
“Keep going, keep going,” he cried. “Louder, louder. Deeper, deeper, from the inside out.”
I sang louder. He shouted over me, “That’s good, that’s very good! Breathe, and keep going! Open your throat!”
I did what he asked.
“Now do you feel it?” He was bending over me again, shouting in my face. His breath smelled like the Wine Gums he kept in his pocket. “Do you feel the o pássaro in there?”
I nodded, my mouth still wide open; I was still singing. I didn’t want to stop. I was nearly screaming in his face. AHHHHHHHHH… I almost laughed, thinking of the look Mamãe would have given me if I sang in her face like that. But Carlito Camilo only watched me with wide round eyes and a slight smile on his plump jowly face. He straightened, slowly, the way older people sometimes do. I was still singing. AHHHHHHHH. His expression became stern and he gestured, one hand slicing over the top of the other. I stopped singing at once.
“Now, what do you feel, criança?” he shouted.
“Everything,” I shouted back at him. And I could see I’d made him very happy with my answer, so I threw my arms out and shouted it again. “EVERYTHING!”
About the Author:
Joan Schweighardt is the author of five novels, and more on the way. In addition to her own writing projects, she writes, ghostwrites, and edits for individuals and corporations.
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