A review of Gifts for the Dead by Joan Schweighardt

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Gifts for the Dead
Rivers Book 2
By Joan Schweighardt
Five Directions Press
Oct 2019

Joan Schweighardt is a master of historical fiction. Her characters are both recognisably modern and also deeply rooted in the times in which they are set. The second book in the Rivers series Gift for the Dead picks up on the continuing story of Jack Hopper, who has returned barely alive from the Amazon jungle where he and his brother went to earn money in the lucrative rubber tree trade. Baxter, the second brother, did not return, and Jack’s bereft fiancé Nora nurses Jack back to life.

The story is written in alternative narratives between Nora and Jack, and traces their blossoming romance, and the unfolding secrets that come between them. Against this is the rich backdrop of Hoboken, New Jersey (New York as well) in the early twentieth century, with the looming threat of World War 1, the rise of the Suffragette movement, and Nora’s own personal sense of social justice that infuses the book. Because the story of Nora and Jack remains in the foreground, the world events that happen around them feel both natural and inherent in the story, but Schweighardt brings a strong scholarship to the work, covering the Black Tom explosion, mis-treatment of resident Germans in the US, the capitalistic greed of Henry Ford with his failed ‘cheap rubber’ city of Fordlândia, and Nora and Jack’s growing pacifism and sense of what is and isn’t right, and the impact that has on them:

The new changes in Hoboken happened so quickly they took our breath away. Only four days after Wilson’s declaration, soldiers from Fort Jay on the upper New York Bay marched into our little town and took over all the German-owned ships (there were sixteen) along the docks. The German owners and the Germans who had worked on the ships were all taken into custody. “How can this be happening?” Jack and I asked each other many times each day. (74)

Throughout the novel, which reads very quickly, Nora and Jack develop as characters, and their back stories are slowly revealed, from Nora’s removal from her parents and the impact of being an orphan to the dislocation and fear that Maggie carries from being an Irish immigrant, to bigotry experienced by Jack’s German landlady.  We also find out more, both from Jack and through Nora’s eyes, of Jack’s time in the Amazon and what really happened to Baxter.

Readers of Rivers Book 1, Before We Died, won’t be disappointed by this second book, which has enough overlap and revelations from the first book to make the continuing story particularly fascinating. Taken together the two books chart a story of exploitation that issadly relevant in terms of rainforest deforestation to an extent that Schweighardt could not have known when she was writing the book, but which makes the visit back to the Amazon that Jack and Nora take particularly poignant. The writing remains exquisite, beautifully rendering the magic of the Amazon forest and its ancient traditions:

It began as a solid gold line on the black river, with a blanket of rose above blending into a purple sky. Gradually the sun pushed itself up, dragging the rose hues along with it. Higher and higher it went, until the whole sky was aflame. While the river was wide, we were close enough to one bank that I was able to see the jungle for the first time: trees and trees and trees, pressed together, pressed forward, like congregants with a solitary purpose, their resolve mirrored in the water. It was glorious, all of it. I hadn’t imagined it would be such a presence. It took my breath away. (130)

As with Before we Died, Gifts for the Dead maintains a deep sense of reference for the natural world, for non-western forms of knowledge that are being lost, and for the enduring mystery and beauty of love. Though it’s a fine sequel, Gifts for the Dead can be read on its own. Schweighardt does a wonderful job of weaving the first book through the narrative subtly, picking up and expanding on some of the themes of the first book:  family ties and the sometimes wrought bond between siblings, the enduring nature of trauma and recovery, and the impact of greed on all that is precious in this world. Gifts for the Dead is a powerful and beautiful book that draws the reader in and doesn’t let go.