Dear Readers, for years I have admired the work of novelist Joan Schweighardt. A prolific, talented writer, Joan recently wrote three suspenseful historic novels about the rubber trade known as The Rivers Trilogy: Before We Died, Gifts for the Dead, and River Aria.
Collectively, the three books in the Rivers series cover the years 1908 to 1929 and concern two groups of people: an Irish American contingent living in New York and New Jersey and an Amerindian/European contingent from Manaus, Brazil. Book one, Before We Died, begins with two Irish American brothers who leave New Jersey after hearing that rubber tappers in South America are making a lot of money. They want to try their hand at it, but the results of their effort are tragic. When one of the brothers returns home without his sibling, relationships among the Irish American contingent must bend and shift accordingly, which happens over the course of the second book, Gifts for the Dead. In book three, River Aria, a young woman—the product of an affair one of the brothers had back in book one—travels from Brazil to New York with a companion in the hope of finding success in the world of opera.
In celebration of the one-year anniversary of the completed series, I was honored to be invited to publish the following excerpt from Before We Died. Enjoy — reading it might inspire you to check out Joan’s intriguing trilogy.
Context: 1908. Rainforest. After a long and dangerous river trip to a camp deep in the Brazilian jungle where they will soon learn how to tap rubber trees, Irish American brothers Jack and Bax Hopper are ordered by their guide to go out and hunt down something for the crew to eat. Jack and Bax are near starved by then, and they are both sick from the ongoing bouts of malaria they’ve suffered ever since they set sail. But their hunting effort is successful, and the next day, they and their fellow rubber tappers feel human for the first time in weeks. Jack, the narrator of Before We Died, describes how the satisfaction of the moment leads him to a telling memory
from back home, in Hoboken, New Jersey.
I was the first to awaken the next day, and having had a good meal the night before—we gorged ourselves almost to the point of puking—and not feeling as feverish as I had for the last several days, I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. Because the days were so hot and evenings cool by comparison, a thick cloak of fog covered the terrain in the wee hours, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. We’d experienced this phenomenon at times out on the river, from whatever boat we’d been on. But now, deep in the jungle, the unveiling—as the mist dissipated by degrees and the trees and plants revealed themselves one by one, enlarging the world incrementally—was a fuckin dinger like no
other I had ever seen.
I grinned like the fool I was as I watched, my piss-pot eyes brimming with tears. And then I found myself remembering the lunar eclipse we’d seen a few years back; my eyes had pooled up then too. Me and Bax, we hadn’t even known it was coming, the eclipse, but Nora had. She’d been across the river with her aunt all that day, and when she got back, late at night, she
threw pebbles at our window, as was her way when she wanted us ‘after hours,’ and we awoke and went outside. Then the three of us ran down to the river and sat on the grass with our eyes all but popping from our heads as a blood-red shadow slowly overtook the full moon.
I’d never seen nothing like it. I was mesmerized. Sometimes it looked to be dangling, that moon, like some ninny had it up on a string, and sometimes, especially as the light dwindled down to a sliver, it looked like an eyeball, staring right at me, trying to relay a message. And in the gobstruck state in which I found myself, I began to imagine the message had something to
do with Nora, that it was trying to tell me I must tell her how I felt…about her…in my heart, no matter that I’d always suspected she liked Bax more than me. But just then, just as the glim dropped off the edge of the moon, I saw with the corner of my eye Bax placing his hand over Nora’s on the grass, and I knew my chance was gone, gone forever, that the blood red moon had a message for me all right, and it was clear what it was.
What would have happened if I’d been the one to lift my manky hand and place it on hers first?
About Joan Schweighardt:
Joan Schweighardt is the author of nine novels, two memoirs, two children’s books and various magazine articles, including work in Parabola Magazine. She is a regular contributor to Occhi Magazine, for which she interviews writers, artists and filmmakers. In addition to her own projects, she has worked as an editor and ghostwriter for private and corporate clients for more than 25 years. She also had her own independent publishing company from 1999 to 2005. Several of her titles won awards, including a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers,” a ForeWord Magazine “Best Fiction of the Year,” and a Borders “Top Ten Read to Me.” Joan also has agented books for other writers, with sales to St. Martin’s, Red Hen, Wesleyan University Press and more.