“The Seamstress” by Frances de Pontes Peebles (HarperCollins, $25.95)
Frances de Pontes Peebles would like us all to understand something about Brazil, where she was born: “It’s not just samba and soccer and the Amazon.”
Peebles, who grew up in Surfside and Coral Gables, Fla., and graduated from Gables High in 1996, goes a long way toward proving that assertion in her breathtaking debut novel. Her rollicking, violent and heartbreaking story is set during the late 1920s and early ‘30s in northeastern Brazil, a region “completely different culturally” from the rest of the country with “its own way of doing things. People there speak a lot of Portuguese that can’t be translated into English.”
“The Seamstress” is a sweeping historical saga that encompasses elements of Brazil unfamiliar to most of us: vast stretches of desert scrubland, daring bandits, crippling drought, a harshly repressive society and the lives of two sisters eager - desperate, even - to escape their impoverished existence in a tiny mountain town.
And lest you suspect the title reflects only a frilly, feminine sensibility, know this: While “The Seamstress” is rich in detail about sewing and its skills - “A good seamstress had to pay attention to detail… . A good seamstress had to be decisive” - the novel also features more decapitations than you’ll find in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The shattering violence, though, is never gratuitous. Peebles skillfully uses it to explore the mythology and mindset of the cangaceiros, the real-life Robin Hoods who became legends by attacking the power structure of the wealthy “colonels,” the land barons who were the law in hard-to-access rural areas. In The Seamstress, set at a time when women had little choice with regard to their futures, elder sister Emilia dreams of meeting a man who can marry her and take her to the big city of Recife. But younger sister Luzia - “Victrola” to the nasty local children who mock her crippled, bent arm - joins a ragged, tough band of vigilantes led by the scarred Hawk, the most feared cangaceiro of all.
Luzia’s decision sounds romantic, but Peebles paints the bandits’ endless traveling with harsh realism: “Each day they moved in a silent line through the scrub, ducking and rising, bending and leaning to avoid barbed vines and tangled branches… . Blisters bubbled across her toes, beneath the heel straps of her alpercatas, and in tender crescents on the soles of her feet. When they burst, her sandals became slick with water and then blood. Monk’s-head cacti littered the ground, their bulbous tops emerging from the earth like men buried neck high in dirt. Their thorns stabbed Luzia’s ankles, the tips breaking and lodging beneath her skin.”
Though Peebles came up with the idea of two separated sisters first - they’re loosely based on her grandmother and great aunt, who grew up in northeastern Brazil - she had been entranced with the stories of cangaceiros from an early age. An uncle once gave her a cangaceiro doll, complete with holster and pistol.
“They are folk heroes in northeastern Brazil, though they’re known throughout the country,” she says from Chicago, where she lives with her husband. “At the tourist markets, they still sell clay sculptures of a couple, a man and woman, who were cangaceiros. It was really a unique phenomenon that existed for centuries. They were one of the only bandit groups in history that included women… . The interesting thing is they had a moral code. Men had to marry women brought into the group. They couldn’t have affairs, or they’d be punished. They couldn’t just go into a town and randomly rape and pillage. They relied on a social network to keep them going. The climate and environment were so harsh they needed some kind of logic to their violence.
“When I interviewed older people in their 70s and 80s and some in their 90s, they hated cangaceiros. At the time they were kids, and their families would hear cangaceiros were in the area, so they would have to sleep in the scrub at night so the bandits would just rob the house and not do anything else. In later generations they were more romanticized. They were criminals, but I wanted to question who the criminal really is.”
Peebles, who spent two years in Brazil researching the period, says she tried to apply historical accuracy to the book’s major events, including a contentious presidential election and the army’s habit of decapitating captured cangaceiros.
“There are actually photos in the archives of all these heads. They used to display them on the steps of the church in town. The soldiers also cut off the heads to take them back as specimens.”
Still, the affecting depth of the characters fuels “The Seamstress.” Peebles is more interested in the effects of violence on its perpetrators than she is in gore. Toward the book’s end, Luzia - motivated by anger and fear - commits an horrific act that haunts her, a daring device by which Peebles risks losing the reader’s sympathy.
“I wanted to show how the culture of violence is still a big part of any rural place when you don’t have a big government presence,” she says. “You have to make your own security and your own laws, and that’s a slippery slope. I think you’d end up becoming callous to protect yourself. With Luzia, I pictured her unraveling… . Reading about these cangaceiros, I feel like they did get to that point; violence would corrupt them.”
Aryn Kyle, author of “The God of Animals” and Peebles’ roommate at the 2006 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, says such attention to character development is what she loves about “The Seamstress,” from Luzia’s agonizing deed to Emilia’s discovery that life in Recife society can be as harsh and unfriendly as the barren lands Luzia roams.
“From the moment I picked up the book, I couldn’t put it down,” Kyle says. “Sometimes one is intimidated by a book this size, but I disappeared into it. I read mostly for character, and to read a book that’s so vast and obviously required so much research and still has characters that feel so alive and real is fabulous. I was sad to be finished with them. These women felt like such literary archetypes - like Scarlett O’Hara.”
Progress eventually put an end to the cangaceiros. Roads and telegraphs helped government troops track them down in isolated areas. Still, the romance of Brazil remains for Peebles. She says she plans to leave the chilly Midwest - “The winters go on forever. They don’t stop!” - and may end up calling Miami home again. Her parents still live in Coconut Grove.
Then again, Brazil and the family farm, which her sister manages, also beckon.
“When I think about a place where I would want to go back to, a place I would want to be when I passed away and was laid to rest, I think of Brazil,” Peebles says. “It’s a spiritual home for me. I have a lot of ties to the States, but Brazil is always in my imagination and in my heart.”