MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, and Brazil during the 1930s. Nothing binds those two periods together except for two new historical novels about characters who sew. One is a debut novel called "The Seamstress," which takes us to Brazil. And the novel "Stand the Storm" is set in Washington. Allan Cheuse has a review of both.
ALLAN CHEUSE: The main character of "Stand the Storm" is a talented former slave with small hands named Gabriel Coats. Gabriel has a gift for sewing, having learned his skill from his mother back on the Virginia plantation where he was born. It's a talent that helps him to buy his way to freedom. His struggle to become his own man and make a life is the main story of this book, but there's a lot going on around it: slaves attempting to make their way north on the underground railroad, the encroachments of the Confederate Army, Washington, D.C., in turmoil. Through it all, Gabriel continues with the work that will earn him money and respect in his tentative freedom. Working for a Jewish tailor, eventually going out on his own, making the many small stitches that hold a life together - this novel, in its painstaking attempt to give us the feel of the lives of former slaves while the Civil War still rages, works in the same way, one useful sentence at a time.
As it happens, two sewing sisters stand at the center of Frances de Pontes Peebles' appealing first novel, "The Seamstress." Emilia and Luzia Coelho are country girls and gifted seamstresses both, raised by their widowed aunt in a hilly hamlet in the drought-ridden region of northeast Brazil. A band of cangaceiros, anti-government cowboy rebels, raids their hamlet. The leader of the rebels, a scar-face peasant known as the Hawk, abducts the more-than-willing Luzia, and the plot rolls into action. Luzia becomes seamstress to the rebels, falls in love with the Hawk. Emilia, meanwhile, enters into a marriage of convenience with a visiting city boy and moves to the coast of Brazil. As romantic as the story sounds - and Peebles has made an agonizingly romantic story in the best sense of the word - it all takes place against the political turmoil of modernizing Brazil and the growing threat of Nazism in Europe. Good stories don't grow out of thin air. They begin with the writer's keen sense of narrative. Peebles certainly has it and a sharp sense of observation.
Odd how two books about characters who sew turn out to be about characters who want their freedom. Sewing Annie, the mother of Gabriel Coats, says about her tailor son: He was born to this work and he is the better of most at it. She could be speaking about this pair of talented writers.
BLOCK: It's our critic Allan Cheuse reviewing "The Seamstress" by Frances de Pontes Peebles and "Stand the Storm" by Breena Clarke.
BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.