A review of Before We Died by Joan Schweighardt

 Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Before We Died
Rivers book 1
By Joan Schweighardt
Five Directions Press, Sept 2018, ISBN: 9781947044166

The year is 1908, and, following on from their father’s sudden death, longshoremen brothers Jack and Baxter leave behind their grieving mother and girlfriend in New Jersey to take a dangerous but potentially lucrative job in the Amazon as seringueiros, or rubber gatherers. It’s the height of the rubber boom in South America, and the brothers want in. The cocky Irish American boys are strong and ambitious but they’re not ready for the terrible trials of the Amazon forest, both emotional and physical. Before We Died is an impeccably researched and engrossing story that reads so quickly you hardly notice how strong and pervasive the underlying themes are. The story pivots around the abuses of power, greed and exploitation, around cruelty and empathy and what makes a human. Though historically powerful in the context of this particularly story, these concepts remain deeply relevant to the world we live in today.

Bax and Jack are charming larrikins, and their brotherly hijinks and unique vernacular are utterly believable, as is their inner integrity which both saves and dooms them. Schweighardt creates a vernacular unique to the brothers, and their funny, potty-mouthed rivalry and the deep abiding love which underpins it is as enjoyable to read as it is believable:

“you flunky shite-faced beggar boob. And so what if it does take more than one season? you going to be hankering so bad for your mammy you won’t be able to hang in? you’re a lag, you’re—

“And you’re a manky blowhard who don’t know what he’s talking about half the time and is lying the other half.”

The story unfolds as the brothers are taken deep into the jungle and taught to tap rubber trees, but they aren’t taught to cope with the humidity, the spiders, the hunger and thirst, the piranhas and cañero vampire fish, Malaria, Jaguars, snakes, their own inner demons, infection, nor do they understand the environment into which they’ve been thrust. Instead they are forced to confront a completely new world, a variety of different cultures, and a range of inner and outer demons. The interactions between the brothers and the two other American seringueiros who join them, between the brothers and their guide(s), between the brothers and the selvagems or tribes, who mirror the uncontacted tribal groups living in the state of Acre in the Amazon all drive the story forward as it weaves between Jack’s flashbacks and the perilous life and death situations the boys find themselves in.

The setting is also richly drawn, often beautiful and sometimes gruesome, clearly informed by Schweighardt’s deep research and personal travel:

Traveling along the furos and várzeas was eerie and beautiful. When it wasn’t storming, the water was glasslike. The reflections from the trees and branches and even the sky were almost more intricate than the things themselves. You couldn’t tell where the reflection ended and the real thing began. Nor could you see the horizon line much of the time, only deep dark forests everywhere reaching out in two directions, up and down.

Though Before We Died is a fictional story, full of intrigue, mystery, and a driving plot that makes it very readable, it is also built around real events as described in the prologue, particularly the catastrophic impact of the rubber boom on some areas of the Amazon, ecologically and in terms of the impacts on the native tribes. The book also confronts issues like racism, exploitation, slavery, and rampant colonialisation, seamlessly integrating the universal into this particular story in a way that feels natural. Before we Died is so full of detail, from the sights and smells of the forest, rivers, flora and fauna of the Amazon to the emotional arc as the brothers grow and develop through their trials. It’s fascinating to watch them develop an empathy which becomes almost mystical, throwing the tyrants they encounter into sharp relief, without compromising their quirky and irreverent characters:

The leaves sounded like tiny bells, hundreds of them. Thousands of them. I felt myself in the grip of the mood the chief was evoking. The bells, the whispers of the women, the jungle sounds beyond, the breeze, the full moon rising above the tree line…I realized I felt joyful, almost giddy with joy.

The book ends on something of a cliffhanger, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in finding myself eager to read the next book in the series. Of course I want to know what happens, but I also want to re-immerse myself in this rich world that Schweighardt has created. Before We Died is a beautifully written story, rich in drama and conflict, and underscored by vitally important and relevant themes.