Climate change, colonialism, imperialism, industrialization: these intertwined issues have deep roots extending back into the eighteenth century, if not longer. One gift of fiction, in my view, is the author’s ability to take these vast sweeping trends—the results of which are often disputed or poorly understood—and bring them down to the individual level where we as humans naturally live. This is part of what Joan Schweighardt and I discuss in my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction.
In the first book in this trilogy, Before We Died, Joan approaches the story of the Amazon rubber-tapping industry and its devastating effects on the local population and ecology by imagining two Irish brothers, Jack and Baxter Hopper, who take ship from their home town of Hoboken, NJ, in the belief they will make their fortune in a year and return home.
Life doesn’t quite work out as they expect. In a novel, that’s hardly a surprise, but the specifics of what they encounter are compelling. In one scene after another, Jack and Baxter experience the damage and dangers firsthand. And their adventures pull us into a world that headlines about the rain forest burning don’t even begin to capture. Through our empathy for Jack and Baxter, we see the piranha in the waters; feel their dread of a tarantula in a hammock; experience their awe at the jaguar emerging from the jungle, lit only by the moon, or their despair as they realize they may not, in the end, make it home.
The story continues in Gifts for the Dead, the main topic of our interview. Here many of the incidents reflected in the lives of Jack Hopper and Nora Sweeney, the woman once engaged to Baxter, come from the history books: World War I, the women’s suffrage movement, the Spanish flu. But here, too, the story eventually finds it way back to the Amazon River and the ongoing destruction of the natural world.
To find out more about Gifts for the Dead, listen to the interview or read the rest of this post, which comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:
Last summer, massive fires in the Amazon rain forest provoked environmental concerns around the world. But the history of exploitation—of the natural world of the rain forest and the people living in it—goes back at least to the rubber boom of the early twentieth century. This setting forms the backdrop for Joan Schweighardt’s compelling and well-written Rivers trilogy, which starts with Before We Died and continues with Gifts for the Dead nd the forthcoming River Aria.
As Gifts for the Dead opens, it is 1911 and the heroine, Nora Sweeney, is waiting for bad news in Hoboken, NJ. A fortuneteller has prophesied that any day two dock workers will appear on the doorstep to report that both the man Nora loves, Baxter Hopper, and his brother, Jack, have died during their work as rubber tappers in Brazil. But when the dock workers arrive, it’s to deliver the comatose body of Jack, on the brink of death.
Nora and Jack’s mother, Maggie, nurse him back to health, and life goes on. With help from Maggie, Nora and Jack restore the family that was broken when the brothers left on their grand adventure. Through World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and the Roaring Twenties, the trio perseveres. Everyone assumes Baxter died in the rain forest. Only Jack knows that his brother’s fate is less certain than he’s given the women reason to believe. And that one day he must go and find out the truth.