Genre: Historical fiction
Author: Joan Schweighardt
Publisher: Five Directions Press
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book:
River Aria is narrated by Estela Hopper, who, as a ten-year-old girl living in the impoverished fishing village of Manaus, Brazil in the early 20th century, is offered a twist-of-fate opportunity to study opera with an esteemed voice instructor. During her years of instruction, Estela, who is talented, passionate and dramatic by nature, dreams of leaving Brazil to perform in New York. But as her beloved instructor is not able to convince the managers of the great Metropolitan Opera that they should bring on a mixed-race immigrant who grew up on the banks of the Amazon River to become an elite performer, Estela accepts what they do offer, a position in the sewing room, and leaves Brazil on a ship with her cousin JoJo in the year 1928.
The challenges that befall Estela and JoJo in New York are plentiful. Estela’s father, an Irish American who came to her village nearly twenty years earlier (at which time she was conceived), has a plan for what her life should look like once she is settled. Her relationship with JoJo changes drastically when he learns he was lied to about his own parentage, and again when he takes a dangerous job working for the owner of a speakeasy. And of course her personal challenges of finding some modicum of success in a place like New York are not only enormous but crushing to her once robust sense of self.
When Tia Adriana’s tearful outbursts first began, JoJo thought it was because she would miss him so much. And surely that was part of it. But the bigger part was that she had lied to him, long ago when he was a little boy. And as there didn’t seem to be any harm in her deception at that time, as it made JoJo happy in fact to hear her build on it, Tia Adriana had done just that. She’d embellished her lie; like clay, she kneaded it and stretched it, working it until it was as high and as stalwart as the tall ships that sometimes came out of the night to rest in our harbor, until it was as vast and mysterious as the river itself. She even made it official, hauling it up the hill to The Superior Tribunal of Justice building to be recorded and made public for anyone who cared to see.
Many times in the weeks before JoJo and I left for New York, Tia Adriana tried to tell him the truth. But every time she opened her mouth, her effort turned to sobbing. Dropping her head into her hands, she would cry with abandon. And when JoJo crossed the room to lay his callused palm upon her heaving back, she would only cry harder.
She wept so much that not two weeks before our departure JoJo said he wouldn’t be coming with me after all, that he would rather stay in Manaus and live the life he had than break his mother’s heart. He made a joke of it; he said if his mother kept crying, the flooding that year would be twice as bad and everyone in the city would drown, and it would be on him, and he would be forever cursed and become a corpo-Seco when his days were up, a dry corpse, because the devil would return his soul and Earth would reject his flesh. He was joking, yes, but he was also toying with the idea of changing his mind.
It was then that the other two got involved, my mother, whose name was Bruna, and Tia Louisa, who were sisters—in heart if not in blood—to Tia Adriana, and to each other as well. “Is that what you want for your son?” Tia Louisa scolded when JoJo was not around. “You want your only child should grow up here, fishing for a living in a ghost town? Dwelling in a shack up on stilts and likely to flood anyway? Every day a sunrise and a sunset and barely anything worth noticing in between?” My mother would chirp in then, adding in her quiet way, her coarse fingers extending to cover Tia Adriana’s trembling wet hands, “Adriana, wasn’t it because you wanted more for him that you lied in the first place?”
The three of them would become philosophers once my mother and Tia Louisa had calmed Tia Adriana sufficiently that she could think past her grief. They weighed JoJo’s future, how it would unfold if he stayed in Manaus, and how it might unfold if he left. Would and might: they might as well have been weighing mud and air. Could he be happy, they asked themselves, eking out a living on the docks for the rest of his life? Blood and fish guts up to his elbows? Endless squabbles up on the hill trying to get the best price for his labors? Drawing his pictures on driftwood—because between us all we couldn’t keep him in good paper—or on the shells of eggs, or even our shabby furniture?
Was that what was best for our beloved JoJo? Or was it the alternative that promised more? America! America! O my America! My new-found-land! In America he would be attending an art school—the grandest art school in the grandest city in that country—not because he, our JoJo, who had grown up ragged and shoeless, had ever even considered that he might travel to New York, but because a man by the name of Felix Black, the protégé of a famous American artist and a former teacher of art himself, had come to Manaus to study our decaying architecture some months ago. And as The Fates would have it, he wandered into Tia Louisa’s restaurant and saw JoJo sitting in the back booth with some paints he had paid for with money he’d made scrubbing decks on one of the locals’ boats, painting the young woman sitting across from him (me, as it happens) on a canvas so scruffy it could only have come from someone’s rubbish pile. Senhor Black watched for a long while and then bent over JoJo and whispered in his ear—startling our dearest JoJo because, except for his eye and his breath and the fingers holding his brush, he was barely there in his own body when he painted—to say that he was a benefactor at an art school far away in New York, and if JoJo were to come, he would help him to realize his full potential—a message I quickly translated as JoJo did not speak much English at that time.
Mud or air? Foot-sucking muck from the bottom of the river or the breath of the heavens, sweet and suffused with bird song? Stinking dead fish or full potential?
We knew what was best for JoJo all right; and we knew that JoJo, who was fearless—though he could barely read or write—would never get an opportunity like this again. And as I would be traveling to New York too, what could be better than sending us off together, one to watch over the other? But the fact remained that Tia Adriana could not bring herself to tell him about her deception, and he could not be permitted to arrive in New York without knowing about it.
I didn’t know the lie was a lie myself until the week before our scheduled departure. Being more than a year younger than JoJo (and loose-lipped, if my mother and as tias could be believed), no one had been foolish enough to trust me to keep a secret of such consequence. I had even participated in the lie—albeit unwittingly—which was nearly as exciting to me as it was to JoJo.
And so it was that when my aunts and Mamãe first began to look for ways to throw light on the truth, they didn’t include me in their conversations. But when they failed to find even a single solution, they called me into Tia Adriana’s shack and sat me down at the table and told me the whole long story from beginning to end.
While they spoke, interrupting one another with details as was their way, I slouched in my chair and leaned back, until I was looking up at the ceiling. Our images were up there: Me and Tia Adriana and my dearest Mamãe, and Tia Louisa and Tia-Avó Nilza, who was Tia Adriana’s mother (and JoJo’s grandmother). Three years earlier, JoJo had painted all of us on a large rectangular ipe wood table top that Tia Louisa was throwing out from the restaurant because rain from the roof had leaked on it a time too many and it had begun to blister and crack. When JoJo claimed the piece of wood for himself, Tia Louisa scolded that his mother’s house was far too small to hang a thing that size. But then an out-of-towner who’d been listening to their conversation over a bowl of fish stew told JoJo about The Sistine Chapel, which JoJo had never heard of. And so impressed was JoJo with the stranger’s story of how the famous artist (Michelangelo, whom JoJo hadn’t heard of either) had come to paint on the ceiling of the Pope’s chapel, that JoJo decided he would nail his painting up on his mother’s ceiling, where no one could say it was in the way. And there it remained. But instead of scenes from the Bible depicting man’s fall from grace, JoJo had painted us floating through our labors, all smiling as if we were saints already—me and Tia Louisa at the restaurant, serving rowdy wage earners, and my mother and the others sitting shoulder to shoulder all in a row on the wooden bench outside Tia Adriana’s shack, repairing fishing nets and singing their favorite fados with strong voices and extravagant gestures.
Usually when I looked at the painting it was to marvel at how young I was back then, how much I’d changed. But now I was thinking that with the exception of myself, JoJo had unintentionally painted the very women who knew about the lie from the beginning, who had most probably helped to shape it, knowing them. I felt my face grow hot, with anger first and then with embarrassment and then with despair. And then Tia Louisa, who was just hoisting the story into the present, changed her tone and snapped, “Estela, are you listening to what we’re saying?”
I straightened at once.
“This is important, young lady, so please pay attention,” she said in Portuguese. She knew a little English, but we always spoke in our native tongue when we were all together. “Once you’re safe on the ship on your way to America, you need to tell JoJo about the lie—”
“And the truth it was meant to hide,” Tia Adriana broke in, nodding excitedly.
“And the truth it was meant to hide, yes.” Tia Louisa closed her eyes and sat in silence for a moment, perhaps in prayer. Then she went on. “You’ll be almost four weeks traveling, the two of you sharing a cabin. He’ll have nowhere to escape to! When you arrive in New York, we’ll want your full report, your letter saying he knows and has accepted…”
“And that he loves me…us…in spite of…,” Tia Adriana cried, her eyes filling with fresh tears.
I looked at their faces. Only my mother was leaning forward, waiting anxiously for me to respond. The other two trusted me better, especially Tia Louisa, who was sitting back now with her arms folded under her ample breasts.
I let them wait. I looked beyond them, at the cast iron skillets hanging from hooks over the wood stove, the clay dishes out on shelves, the cot in the corner where Tia Adriana slept, the old tin washtub in the opposite corner, the curtain—worn to gauze from years of handling—that separated the kitchen from the back room where Tia-Avó Nilza and Avô Davi (who was Nilza’s husband and JoJo’s grandfather) and JoJo slept.
“Yes, of course,” I mumbled.
They chuckled, all of them, with relief, and in that moment it occurred to me that I would have to lie to them, mamãe and as tias, in the event that JoJo was unforgiving.
About the Author:
Joan Schweighardt is the author of River Aria, which is both a standalone novel and the third book in a trilogy, as well as other novels, nonfiction titles, and children’s books. She is also a freelance writer and ghostwriter.
Find out more about Joan!