The Seamstress: A Novel by Frances De Pontes Peebles
Some of the best aspects of reading fiction are visiting places you may never otherwise see and providing a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a different time in history. The Seamstress, which takes place mainly between Taquaritinga and Recife, Brazil during the late 1920s and early 1930s, is an engaging novel that provides the opportunity for both. It tells the story of Emilia and Luzia dos Santos, orphaned sisters who are raised by their Aunt Sofia, the seamstress for the community’s Colonel. The sisters, while very different people, both find peace, creative release, and ultimately their destinies in sewing.
Emilia dos Santos is the oldest sister, and she has high aspirations for her life. She is not content to remain forever in Taquaritinga, a small interior town whose prospects do not allow her, despite her charm, the ability to rise above her warm, yet meager existence. Her refusal to consider the many bachelors who have asked Aunt Sofia for her hand has given her a reputation for being a young woman who thinks too highly of herself, but she finds her escape in her collection of Fon Fon magazines, which provide patterns for the latest fashions along with guidance on being a lady and short stories about gentlemen and romance. What gives her hope is marrying a gentleman and moving to Recife, where life is beautiful and full of opportunity.
Luzia dos Santos is quite the opposite from her sister. She has no interest at all in her sister’s fashion magazines or fantasies of Recife. As a young child she fell from a tree and broke her arm. Because of the inadequate medical care she received, her arm is permanently bent at a 90 degree angle. Her disability makes ends all prospects of marriage for her and she becomes somewhat of an outcast in Taquaritinga, earning herself the knickname Victrola because her arm resembled the arm of the popular record player. Unlike Emilia, Luzia rebels against society and its ways. She fights every way she can because she sees no real future for herself until The Hawk and his band of cangaceiros invade Taquaritinga looking for water during the dry season.
Brazil in the early part of the 20th century was a corrupt and harsh place to live, especially outside of the large cities surrounding the coast. There was no fully authoritative centralized government, so the wealthy landowners, or Colonels, ruled their territory as they saw fit. The ease of life in the interior portions of the country was very much dependent upon the weather and the life experience of the current Colonel. As many of them were prone to be tyrants, this gave rise to the cangacos, groups of bandits who roamed throughout the countryside as nomads in search of food, money and, above all else, revenge against the Colonels and gentry. Emilia and Luzia came of age at a time when a powerful leader to over power in the central government through revolution and began to take power away from the Colonels. This change in political climate brought reforms, but also chaos into the country. As much as it is about the vastly different lives Emilia and Luzia led, The Seamstress tells the story of how the relationship between coastal and interior Brazil changed this new government took hold of the country.
Emilia and Luzia found that getting what they wanted always comes at a price. Because of their background, they are never fully welcomed in the communities they joined. What kept them from alienation and made them whole was the only things they took with them from Taquaritinga, their survival skills and their passion for sewing. When they find themselves at odds in the new political climate, will their bond be enough to save them?
The author really brings to life both the environmental harshness of the arid Brazilian countryside and the political and social harshness of Recife. While the cangaceiros were fighting to stay relevant in an age when the Colonels were losing stature and authority, the upper class in Recife were fighting to rid the country of the terror created by these random acts of violence and retribution. The fear felt by the establishment opened the door to use phrenology to catalog criminals in order to predict who will become harmful to the state. It was a fascinating look at a developing Latin American country.
The Seamstress expertly blends the threads of family, culture, crime, punishment, sin and redemption into a beautiful canvas that highlights both an exotic land and an intriguing time in Latin American history. While it took me a while to read this book, there isn’t any part that felt unnecessary or should have otherwise not been included. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I grew to care deeply for Emilia and Luzia and was interested in their world. I hope to learn more from Brazil and look forward to reading more from Frances De Pontes Peebles in the future. The story of these sisters and their country will stay with me for a long time to come.
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