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A Review of “The Seamstress” by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Seamstress

By Frances de Pontes Peebles

Harper Collins, 2008

This vast, sprawling novel by Frances de Pontes Peebles marks a stunning literary debut for this young author. Born in the central Brazilian state of Pernambuco, she has reached back to her homeland to write a monumental saga about two backland orphaned sisters whose lives take dramatically different paths during the late 1920s and early 1930s. One becomes a society matron in the state capital of Recife far away on the coast, while the other joins an outlaw gang headed by a feared but charismatic bandit known as "The Hawk."

The author uses the lifestyles of both sisters to describe in great depth and detail the progress that Brazil made during those years. Over that period the country was transformed from a number of more or less independent states to a unified nation, similar to the U.S. in the late 1800s when the East was settled, but the West functioned almost as a separate and very distant country. The major civilizing influences were, of course, trains and then automobiles, with the Brazilian government inaugurating the construction of a vast system of railroad lines and then highways to bring the interiors of the far-flung states into the legal and commercial orbit of the coastal cities and state capitals.

Ms. de Pontes Peebles attended the University of Texas at Austin and attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She has written a number of short stories, one of which was featured in the O. Henry Prize Story Collection for 2005. She has also won other writing awards in both Brazil and here in the United States, but nothing else approaches the monumental scope of this extensive and beautifully written saga of more than six hundred pages.

The audacity of this young writer to bring to the table such an ambitious literary effort almost boggles my mind. Her writing is sure and deft and very accomplished. Every locale is described in great detail so that the flavor of the area and the local inhabitants are magnificently rendered.

What is also described in some detail is the lowly status of females in a chauvinistic and patriarchal society where the wives and the daughters can do little or nothing without the permission of their husbands or fathers. The status of young girls remains an unknown; for they don’t achieve any kind of identity until they are married, take the name of their husband, and leave home to live with his family.

Emilia dos Santos was thrilled to leave her mountain home to marry into the wealthy Coelho family with their mansion on a fashionable street in the state capital of Recife. However, she quickly finds out that neither marriage nor the life of the privileged is what she had dreamed about. Emilia submits with reluctance to the regimen, but she secretly conspires against it by committing little acts of rebellion.

Her younger sister, Luzia dos Santos, was condemned to be a spinster because of a childhood injury. With nothing to lose, she joins a gang of outlaws and eventually liberates herself when she proves to be just as good as the "cangaceiros." Her talent as a seamstress for the gang members gives rise to the name of "The Seamstress" for this unknown woman, a rarity in the outlaw gangs, whose ability to sew was only exceeded by her deadly marksmanship.

The author starts with a prologue that takes place in 1935 at the end of the story with Emilia Coelho and then goes back to the beginning some seven or eight years earlier when Emilia and Luzia as teenagers were being raised by their Aunt Sophia in the small and impoverished mountain town of Taquaritinga do Norte in the far western reaches of Pernambuco.

Aunt Sophia made a small living as a seamstress, primarily for the local colonel and his wife, and she taught her two nieces the trade. When the sisters leave one another, so does the story with each chapter switching back and forth between them as their paths diverge and then slowly approach one another years later. Whatever else that can be said, Emilia and Luzia remain deeply devoted to each other. Blood will always be thicker than water.

We have all grown up watching Westerns on television and at the movie theaters to the point where we might forget that many countries have also experienced similar growth cycles. The popularity of the Crocodile Dundee movies, the televised mini-series, "The Thorn Birds," and other films like Rabbit-Proof Fence have introduced the Australian Outback to us as emblematic of the frontier era of that country.

Other countries besides the US and Australia have had similar "Wild West" periods of their own where settlers have gradually migrated from the coasts into the sparsely settled frontier areas, and the vast country of Brazil is a sterling example of this.

In the days when travel was by horseback or by stagecoach, the distant frontier towns were often weeks of travel away from the coastal cities. Of necessity each area functioned according to whoever exercised the power of whatever passed for the law of that land. Usually, that law was administered by one of the "Colonels," the local land barons of each region.

Also like our own West, gangs of bandits roved back and forth across the Brazilian wild west, called the "caatinga," a huge area of scrubland, plains, and low mountains south of the Amazon River basin and far away from the coastal areas. Of these gangs, the one led by Antônio Teixeira, known throughout the nation as "The Hawk" for his deeply scarred face and piercing gaze, is the most famous, so much so that even the newspapers in the cities describe his exploits in lurid detail to their fascinated readers.

The romance of the cangaceiros and the caatinga as described by Ms. de Pontes Peebles cries out to be made into a televised mini-series. This is the book for you if you love colorful adventures with a taste of the strange and exotic in far away places.