BEFORE WE DIED by Joan Schweigardt Book Review – Turn-of-the-Twentieth Century History Lesson in Novel Form

The title, Before We Died, foretells the horror that awaits in this novel.  Jack and Dexter Hopper, Irish-American brothers, barely men, leave Hobokan, NJ in 1908 on a two-masted steamship for Belim, Brazil, to make their fortune in rubber.

BEFORE WE DIED Recounts Rubber Boom in Northern Brazil

Rubber, long known to the natives of central and south America, was the ideal material for bicycle and automobile tires.  Not the pneumatic ones of today, but solid rubber, requiring tons of latex gathered by hand in the Amazon jungle.  As the Gold Rush was to the mid-1800’s, the Rubber Boom was to the turn of the century, 50 years later.

While gold nuggets intrinsically could make men rich, manufacturing from rubber required vast quantities of latex, hand-gathered from randomly growing trees along the Amazon basin of Brazil.  The Portuguese, experienced at driving herds of indentured and enslaved workers to extract the mineral wealth of Brazil, became masters at gathering and selling latex.

Brazilian Indian Tribes Reduced to Slaves

It was the native tribes who suffered most.  They were the most reliable source of labor.  They were immune to jungle diseases and knew how to tap the trees.  White workers from the United States and Europe were looking for quick wealth, were susceptible to malaria and could leave for other places.  In twelve years along the Putamayo River, tribe members were reduced from 30,000 to less than 8,000.  It was only the collapse of the Brazilian rubber boom that saved any Indians.  The British germinated rubber trees and began to locate them in their East Asian colonies.  By 1910, Brazil was still responsible for 50% of natural rubber production.  By 1940, it was less than 1%.

In BEFORE WE DIED, There Is Trial, Loss and No Salvation

Jack and Bax’s story is one of trial and loss.  There is no salvation in colonial Brazil.  Schweigardt evokes the claustrophobic muddy grip of the jungle with her watery setting on the rivers and the ceaseless rain.  Their journey begins on a steamship to Belem, moves to a river boat bound for Manoás, half the size with two times the smelly passengers.  Manoás booms with rubber riches.  The brothers meet their slick Portuguese employer, who fronts them with supplies and an overseer named only “C”.  Like sharecroppers, they are to split the profits after covering the cost of their supplies.  From Manoás they take a smaller boat up upriver to their jungle rendezvous point at the confluence of two rivers.  From there they paddle a dugout canoe to their camp.  With two other men from the U.S., C shows them how to tap the trees, gather the latex, improve their shelter, cook their farina—and leaves them to survive or die.

BEFORE WE DIED
BEFORE WE DIED

And they do survive, but are beaten by disease, cruelty, starvation, misogyny, slavery, and loss.  Schweigardt cleverly constructs dialogue laced with colloquial Irish and Portuguese.  Add to this the strange, yet gentle culture of the Gha-ru Indians and the cruel African-Caribbean slave-drivers, and poly-glot mix of the Amazon emerges.  The author’s plot is clever, in this reviewer's view, drawing in many historical aspects of their fiendish situations.  Except for a tender relationship between Jack and Bruna, a mestiço de indio (half-breed) servant, and the brothers’ apparent survival (necessary if they are to appear in the next book), the story rang true.  Lesser men would surely have died, and many did.

You want to read this book if you are interested in early twentieth century history in the Americas and the exploitation of the Amazon basin.

Published by Five Directions Press, 2018

Price: $15.99

For more information Visit the Before We Died Website

Images courtesy of: Michael Dooley Photographer

Ann Boland
Portrait by Paul Sierra

Reviewer Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater. Involved in the audience since the early 80’s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of our theater scene, our exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation.  Ann handles public relations for authors and works on programs to help seniors with neurological movement disorders.  Please visit her website for more information.  

 

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