Before We Died
Genre: Historical Fiction
Author: Joan Schweighardt
Expected publication: September 15th 2018 by Five Directions Press
In 1908 two Irish American brothers leave their jobs on the docks of Hoboken, NJ to make their fortune tapping rubber trees in the South American rainforest. They expect to encounter floods, snakes, malaria, extreme hunger and unfriendly competitors, but nothing prepares them for the psychological hurdles that will befall them. Before We Died, the first in a three-book "rivers" series, is a literary adventure novel set against the background of the South American rubber boom, a fascinating but little known historical moment.
The setting in this historical fiction novel was fascinatingly unique. Imagine harvesting / milking trees in the Amazon jungle for the production of rubber over a hundred years ago under the worst conditions. Follow two Irish American brothers traveling from Hoboken, NJ to the Amazon in hopes to pad their wallets and bank accounts quickly by getting into the trade.
"Rubber trees don't grow in groves; they are spread throughout forests thick with vegetation and fraught with danger. Nor can trees be tapped throughout the year. Still, people rushed to the jungle to make their fortune in rubber." - Joan Schweighhardt
"Often the rubber tappers died from maliaria, yellow fever, snake bites or starvation - before they could pay off their debt to their sponsors." - Joan Schweighardt
1908, Hoboken NJ, Jack and Baxter are ready to to embark on the ship that marks the beginning of their journey to the Amazon. Their Mum is clinging their shirtsleeves, bawling and keening like it was their Da's funeral all over again. But the strapping young lads have it all figured out and are unstoppable. "We'll have ourselves our own business. We'll take turns going to South America to oversee, but eventually hire an overseer, and then we'll conduct our business from here." ..is what they are planning to do. If only their Da was there to see it!
Abalo is the man that is sponsoring the outfit and the set up for Jack and Baxter. He is to meet them and provide all they need to get started and arrange for further travel and camp with a guide. Unsure of where they are to meet Abalo, they are headed in a smaller boat, a gaiola to continue to Manoas but not before taking in the scene around them. There are lot's of Portuguese, "copper colored people" caboclos, Indians and plenty of brancos, white people. Footbridges adorn the sides of the rivers everywhere for easy crossing of the waterways, and there are horse drawn carriages and boats with fishermen galore. On the next part of their journey it does not take long for their first encounter with the dangers that lurk in the jungle - River Caimans.
Manoas is a busy place. An international city in the middle of the jungle. Steamers and boats are filled with cargo of caged birds, monkeys, turtles and fruit. Coffee colored women in gay frocks are cackling away as they beat their laundry and carry baskets to and fro.
"Between the birds and the women, the air was full of music and color, and I will be the first to admit I was fuckin elated." - Joan Schweighardt
After finally meeting Abalo and stocked with provisions, the brothers make it to camp. They are to meet two other men, Leon and Ted, with whom they are to work in a team and by evening time they all are getting on well toasting to their brotherhood and to working off their skinny arses to the bone. In the next few days they are learning all the necessary to cut into the trees and harvest the milk. The work is grueling and wet. Their hammocks never dry and the moisture in the camp is making things reek and rot. This gives rise to fowl moods and tensions among the group of men. The work is grueling, and when one is down the others have to make up for the loss. Ever so slowly now, sickness is befalling the men as well.
To make things worse, they are running out of provisions sooner then expected. The local gha-ru tribes people in the woods will end up as the saving grace to some of the men, but not in the all over picture against the evil rich rubber lords. This part of the plot will take on a whole other set of circumstances in the face of good, and the evil operations for riches with disregard of contracts or fatalities.
The question is, will Jack and Baxter strike it rich? Will they even survive and make it out of the jungle? How about their Mum and loved ones?
"I was a fallen man; I had lost my humanity. I was never much of a dogooder, it's true, but I believed in the work do-gooders did..." - Joan Schweighardt
This was the first novel in the Rivers series.
Going over my notes and re-reading parts of this novel, I am still at awe at the entire thematic of it. I do enjoy history and now this novel has added another puzzle piece to gap my missing knowledge as well as woken my need to research this more. According to the acknowledgements in the back of the book, Joan Schweighardt has had an obsession with the jungle since childhood, while discovering about the rubber tapping much later as an adult. To put this novel into fruition, she did a lot of research about the tribal cultures, the plants and wildlife as well as a trip into that area. Further reading and sources are listed in the back of the book, that I'll be sure to check out.
My review and inexpertise in the matter cannot do justice to the colorful writing of BEFORE WE DIED. The characters are easy to get on with and relate to. Parts of this novel read like a thriller while others stir your heart with sorrow or romance. The underlying message that commences is about the circle of humanity that goes beyond borders, race or beliefs. While the focus of the lesser fortunate lies in the relationships they build and have with others, those that are greedy will never be satisfied. And then there are those that just fall for the wrong dream.
This novel is simply absorbing with binding details of a different world...I highly recommend :)
I received a digital copy from Netgalley in exchange of an honest review. All opinions are my own.