A Hero for the People: Stories of the Brazilian Backlands
Arthur Powers (Brazil 1969-73)
$17.95 (paperback), $.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962-64)
I prefer novels to short stories, but I loved this book. Arthur Powers’ love for Brazil and its people began with his Peace Corps service in Brazil in 1969.
Later Powers worked for the Catholic Church in the eastern Amazon region, where he organized subsistence farmers and rural worker unions. The author has received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and the 2012 Tuscany Press Novella Award for this book, A Hero for the People, his first collection of short stories.
The book’s subtitle, Stories of the Brazilian Backlands, is fitting. All of the stories are located in Brazil’s backlands, although some take place more than one thousand miles away from the flat, dry land of the northeast, where cowboys known for their distinctively shaped leather hats, tend cattle that may be emaciated like the people during periods of drought. Other stories are located in the slums or favelas of Rio de Janeiro, that city’s “backlands,” on the mountainsides, where the people live back behind the wealth and glamour of Copacabana, Leblon, and Ipanema, and back in line for clean water, health care, and adequate nutrition. But they do live smack up against violent, drug-related crime. (With the World Cup fast- approaching in summer, 2014, Rio police are trying to make life safer for tourists, but soccer fans beware.)
I left Rio de Janeiro in 1969, the same year Powers arrived, having spent the previous year in Recife, in Brazil’s impoverished northeast. By then, I had finished my Peace Corps service in Peru and had taught a few years before returning to Latin America with my then husband who was working on his dissertation. We lived as poor students by U.S. standards, but lived well compared to those city dwellers who would wade into the vast mud flats to dig for clams and any other moving thing they could take home and eat. My son was born in a private hospital there because the doctor who owned it agreed to take our student health insurance. (I had checked out the public hospital, but it was two women to a bed.) Reading Powers’ stories set in the northeast and the sertâo, the dry backlands west of coastal cities and tropical turquoise beaches, I recalled the stoicism and resilience of the people, winnowed to muscle and bone covered by a thin layer of flesh, given the frequent droughts.
Powers’ simple, elegant prose invited me into the lives of the people. He writes with detail, empathy, and a deep knowledge of the Brazilian soul, deftly setting up each story and quickly building the arc. Each resolution is exquisitely rendered. Each story is memorable in its own right. Tears welled unexpectedly while reading some of the stories.
Thematically, many of the stories deal with land and the unjust taking of it from squatter families, most of whom had lived on it long enough to have earned title. When you’re barely surviving, however, you can’t hire a lawyer, and if you could, you’d never find one because they’re in the pocket of the powerful, as are the judges who are happy to do the dirty work of the crooks, even if it means the forced removal of the poor from their homes and land, leaving them no means of support.
My favorite tale was the title story, “A Hero for the People,” about the unassuming, Belgian Brother Michel who is transferred from his comfortable provincial house in Rio de Janeiro to the Barreira das Almas mission to help Father Gil, an aging priest, who, while still celebrating Mass, can no longer attend to the practical demands of parish life. He won’t leave his post, however, because the people need the sacraments, and it’s unlikely that another priest would be found to enter into the daily struggles of the poor in that community.
At first, Brother Michel feels useless, but soon after his arrival he does what he used to do in Rio-he visits the poor:
These were not the poor of the community movements and the unions, the poor who are struggling for the reign of God and justice on earth. These were the complaining poor, cramped into the rooms of old run-down mansions, one or two families to a room-the poor with aching backs and rheumatism and drunken husbands, who remembered a lost chance early in life, whose greatest dream of change was being offered a job by someone rich. To these people Brother Michel brought nothing but a willingness to listen-he had nothing else to bring-but it seemed to the people that peace rested for a moment around the hard wooden stool where he sat.
During his visits, Brother Michel listens to the stories of mothers who have lost babies because of disease and/or malnutrition. He learns of the struggle of the poor to retain their land in the face of violence and even death if they don’t surrender. Having been an archivist in Rio, he soon becomes a full-time organizer of people, naively standing up to dangerous individuals, downplaying death threats, praying always that a hero for the people will arise, like the one he sees in his dreams who resembles the star of a Brazilian melodrama set in the 19th century, during the time of slavery, “…a young nobleman, disguised in a mask and cape, sweeping out of the night to right wrongs, to avenge injustice….” Brother Michel’s dream evolves from the nobleman, to a woman riding out of the rainforest on a white horse, her armor glistening, and to a Moses figure: “Let my people live on their land…Let my people live….”
Brother Michel enlists the help of the Church lawyer in Rio who tells him that the best proof of land ownership the people have is to make improvements upon it, like building fences, wells, planting fruit trees, building schools. Above all, they must not leave their land. They must stand firm, even if the police burn their crops and houses.
The police did not make it by dawn. It was ten a.m., the sun high and hot, when the first truck in the convoy of seven vehicles rounded a bend in the dirt road to Agua Fria: seven drivers, three men in sports shirts and real policemen-and thirty more hangers-on with guns in their belts. The first truck slowed, then came to a halt, and one of the men in sunglasses, riding in the cab, swore under his breath. A hundred feet in front of them, barbed wire stretched across the road. Behind the barbed wire stood a hundred men, women, and children, and, this side of the barbed wire, three or four men, a dozen ladies holding rosary beads, a group of teenagers from town, and a damn little friar in a gray habit. Singing. All of them singing some damn church song. And the convoy motors turning off one by one, truck and jeep doors slamming, men climbing down from the trucks to look, the little man in the gray habit calling out to some of the police by name-“Good morning, Ivaldo; Good morning, Edivan,” thick glasses catching the sunlight above a ridiculous squat figure with a silly foreign accent.”
You can’t help but care for the protagonists in Powers’ stories, so from the beginning you have a stake in the outcome. They don’t know their own strengths, their own capacity to uplift the world. Powers elevates the humble and poor with his stories, and we are made better for having read them.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten is the author of Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy; The Mourning of Angels, a novel inspired by her two years as a PCV in Peru; Wild Women with Tender Hearts; which won the 2007 Peace Corps Writers Award for Poetry, and her latest, A Longing for Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience and Her Church, about the need for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. She also wrote the introduction to, and translation of, The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist. Patricia has worked as a United Nations consultant to women’s groups in Brazil and Peru. She currently lives in Pensacola, Florida and Montezuma, North Carolina.