Posted by: koolwine | June 12, 2011

Brazil: The Seamstress

Rugged outlaws and high society women alike swoon over the designs sewn by two young sisters.

Country Focus: Brazil (Brasil in Portuguese)

The Seamstress
by Frances de Pontes Peebles (Brazilian-American)
Originally published: Harper-Collins, 2008.
My edition: Harper Perennial, 2009.  641 pgs.

Acclaim: Winner of the “Elle’s Lettres” Fiction Grand Prix; Winner of the Friends of American Writers Award for Fiction

Genre: Historical Fiction

Time period: 1928-1935

Summary:  The Seamstress‘s narration alternates between Emília and Luzia, sisters and excellent seamstresses .  Tall, bold and hampered by a bum arm, Luzia makes a poor candidate for marriage.  A band of cangaceiros, Brazil’s scrubland outlaws, abduct Luzia, who endures and then excels in her new environment.  Emília dreams of romance and lives for the few small luxuries within her reach: perfumed soap and Fon Fon magazine.  Reality does not live up to her expectations when she marries and moves to the coastal city of Recífe. To fill her time, Emília starts a fashion atelier and dives into humanitarian work.   The two sisters keep track of each by reading stories about each other in the newspaper:  Emília appears regularly in the society section; Luzia, known only by her nickname “The Seamstress” merits front page news for murder.


After the sixth surveyor’s funeral, journalists speculated that the Seamstress, not the Hawk, had ordered the decapitations.  She was merciless, the papers said.  She had no shame.  Emília had heard this expression many times before.  Back in Taquaritinga, when she wore heeled shoes, or rouged her face, or when she and Degas took unchaperoned walks during their brief courtship, Emília heard people whisper about her: That girl has no shame!  Shame was admirable in a woman.

How The Seamstress reflects Brazil:
Locations: the rural mountain village of Taquaritinga do Norte, the caatinga scrubland, the ocean-side city of Recífe (all three in northeastern Brazil)
Historical events: the impact of America’s 1929 stock market crash, called “the crisis” in Brazil; the revolution of 1930; the drought of 1932
Portuguese language: a few words and phrases
Food:  intriging and supposedly accurate descriptions of the vittles that the cangaceiros survived on in the scrubland (xique-xique cactus juice; dried beef covered in green film)
Culture: the lifestyle of the cangaceiros; phrenology; the rule-laden and repressive social structure of the Brazilian elite; women’s suffrage; the landing of the Graf Zeppelin in Recífe

Would I read another book by Peebles: Yes!


In my book, or what Brazil means to me and maybe you, too:

The Amazon.  Here are some amazing facts:
The Amazon rainforest stretches over 57% of Brazil.  Brazil is by far the most biodiverse country on Earth, with more than 56,000 plant, 1,700 bird, 695 amphibian, 578 mammal and 651 reptile species.

Brazil’s 1988 constitution set aside approximately a quarter of  the Amazonian rainforest for native inhabitants.  60% of Brazil’s indigenous population live on these reserves.

The number one cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon? Cattle ranching. In February 2009, cattle ranches covered 214,000 square miles – that’s more land area than France!

Pelé.  Here’s why Pelé kicks ass:
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known worldwide as Pelé, still ranks as the greatest soccer player of all time.  His combination of tactical genius, speed and technique  made him an international superstar.  He and his Brazilian teammates won three FIFA World Cups ™, in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Pelé dedicated his 1,000th professional goal – scored on November 19, 1969 – to children living in Brazilian slums.  By the end of his career, he had racked up 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.

Since retiring in 1977, Pelé served as ambassador for the UN and UNICEF.   He said, “Every kid in the world who plays football wants to be Pele, which means I have the responsibility of showing them how to be a footballer, but also how to be a man.”

“Copacabana.”  Music and beaches and Star Wars pastiches…
An area of Rio de Janeiro renowned for its famous beach, Copacabana got its name from the Virgen de Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia whose replica  graces a local chapel.

Barry Manilow’s 1978 hit song “Copacabana” refers to the eponymous New York City nightclub that hosted dozens of top performers in its heyday.  Closed since 2007, the Copa will reopen on July 4, 2011.

“Music and blasters and old Jedi masters…” (click here for a Star Wars-themed version of “Copacabana”).

Christ the Redeemer statue.  Here’s why you should put your hands up:
Completed in 1931, Christ the Redeemer stands atop 2,300 ft Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca Forest National Park. A 360 degree view of Rio awaits visitors, who can take a train to the base or climb the 220 stairs.

Christ Almighty!  He’s hewn from reinforced concrete and soapstone and measures out  to 130 ft tall (shorter than the 305 ft Statue of Liberty) with a 92 ft armspan.

Tijuca Forest National Park is the largest urban forest in the world.  Major Manuel Gomes Archer, along with six slaves, hand-planted all 12.4 square miles of rainforest in the late 1800s. Rumor has it that the task only took 13 years.

City of God.  Here’s why you should go slumming:
The 2002 movie City of God chronicles the growth of organized crime in the Cidade de Deus favela (slum) of Rio de Janeiro during the late 1960s – early 1980s.

One-time slum resident Paulo Lins wrote the 1997 novel Cidade de Deus on which the movie is based.  Lins says that he pulled the story out of  “10 years of research and 30 years of life experience.”

Rio de Janeiro will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.  In anticipation of international media attention, officials are finally attempting  (after years of turning a blind eye) to eliminate the drug gangs that have long ruled the city’s favelas.

Up next: The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte (Spain)

Keep Reading!



  1. What an enjoyable read! I found it to be an absorbing narrative carrying me back and forth between the two sisters and their environments. I liked the comparisons and contrasts between the two. While two sisters are the main characters of the story, as a male reader the story was very interesting to me, too. Plenty of adventure and machismo to go around and the narrative of the two sisters’ lives carried me along nicely. Some lines that caught my attenton: “Necks were like the branches of caatinga trees: thin but tough. There were tendons, muscles, vertebrae, and other sinewy structures that made the cutting difficult. There were differences in men, too. Some necks were thicker than others. Luzia found herself evaluating men by their necks: which would be hard to slice, which would be easy.”

    I also appreciated the details about the cultures of both the backcountry and the city in Brasil at that time. I feel like my perpsective has been broadened by being taken into worlds I had not yet encountered.

    “The New families were not interested in land, but in business. They were the Raposos – a dark-haired clan whose women had the subtle sheen of mustaches on their upper lips…” When I was in high school in southern Illinois we had a young woman from Sao Paulo as a student teacher in history class. She was somewhat attractive and her attractiveness was enhanced to us teenage boys by her brown skin, her dark hair and her accented English. But then there was that mustache… Perhaps she was descended from these Raposos.

    Thanks again for another excellent recommendation. On to Thailand and “Sightseeing”.


    • Oh good! That’s a great quote that you pulled. Very funny that you associated the mustachioed Raposos with your high school teacher. Of all the things she would have wanted to be remembered for…


  2. I completely forgot to mention one of the “common threads” (just getting that pun out of the way) I have with the book. As a toddler I was babysat by my great-aunt who wove throw rugs on a loom. I spent countless hours by her side sitting on the bench in front of the loom as she passed the shuttles and shoved the framed closed to tighten the strands of cloth. I learned how to count by counting the passes of shuttles she made. I was enraptured by the coming together of a whole piece from all those strings of cloth. When I was older my mother enlisted my help in cutting the pieces of patterns from McCall’s dress and blouse patterns and then pinning them to the material she had selected. I finally graduated to actually cutting the material according to the patterns. I learned to cut boldly (or “bravely” as Aunt Sophia taught the sisters). Later, in my religious studies this would help me understand Martin Luther’s “Sin boldly”.


    • That is such a cool memory of your great-aunt and learning to count. I’ve never done any sewing so I wasn’t able to relate to that aspect of the novel, but it’s neat to hear that your mom gave you lessons similar to Aunt Sophia’s “cut bravely” instruction.


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