Historical Fiction Review: 'River Aria' by Joan Schweighardt
From the pen of talented historical novelist Joan Schweighardt comes another well-crafted, meticulously researched story about family, community, immigration, oppression, the environment, and having to face the consequences of one’s actions.
It’s 1928 and the Great Depression is looming around the corner when two impoverish but talented mixed-raced—Amerindian and European—Brazilian immigrant cousins travel to NYC to find a better life and fulfill their dreams. Estela, a singer of arias and a product of the Teatro Amazonas during the time of the rubber boom, has a beautiful voice and dreams of becoming a famous opera singer; Jojo is a fisherman and a gifted artist. As a start, Estela is offered a seamstress position at the Metropolitan Opera House while Jojo is offered a scholarship at an art school. Will they achieve their dreams against all obstacles? If yes, at what price?
River Aria is the third installment in this author’s series and is focused on the next generation of the family featured in the first book. There is so much I enjoyed about this novel! The worlds of art and music in 1920s NYC come together engrossingly. The multifaceted, original characters—you don’t often read stories about indigenous people from Brazil—and their struggles to find purpose and meaning in a complex, ruthless city that is a character all on its own, kept me riveted. Parentage and identity are big themes with both Estela and Jojo as they struggle with their origins and how it affects their lives. Having read other books by Schweighardt, I’ve become familiar with her literary prose. She always strives for depth, and she pays great attention to detail.
The author visited the rainforest, as well as Manaus, the Amazon, and Rio Negro as part of her research, and considering the authentic feel of the plot and characters, I’m not surprised. In spite of this, however, the writing doesn’t get too heavy-handed, which is sometimes a problem in this type of book. I particularly recommend River Aria to historical fiction fans who have a special interest in the rubber boom that took place in Brazil in the early 1900s and how it affected the fishing villages and the indigenous people living there.