Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Before We Died (Rivers, #1) - Joan Schweighardt

Summary: In 1908 two Irish American brothers leave their jobs on the docks of Hoboken, NJ to make their fortune tapping rubber trees in the South American rainforest. They expect to encounter floods, snakes, malaria, extreme hunger and unfriendly competitors, but nothing prepares them for the psychological hurdles that will befall them. Before We Died, the first in a three-book "rivers" series, is a literary adventure novel set against the background of the South American rubber boom, a fascinating but little known historical moment.  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review:  I’d like to think that I am pretty open-minded when it comes to reading. I read a wide variety of books in a wide variety of genres, and even those genres that I’ve declared aren’t my favorite, I will often find books in them that I enjoy. I try not to discriminate just on the genre, although, like anyone, I have my preferences. I especially enjoy a book if I feel a connection to it. Admittedly, I read a lot of books that I have no known connection to and have liked them quite a lot, but finding a book that I have a connection to is also very enjoyable and rewarding.

I chose this book because my Granny’s parents owned a rubber and tea plantation in Malaya (now it is Malaysia). Although she is Scottish, and they had a family home in Scotland, she was actually born in Malaya. (My Granny is the coolest.) This ancestral home was later confiscated by the Chinese when they invaded, and it has now been made into a museum (that I would love to see someday). The whole point of this story is that I chose this book because it was about tapping rubber. Granted, this book takes place in South America, but I knew that the actual circumstances of braving the jungle and tapping the rubber might have had some similarities, especially because the era is the same. Truth be told, I actually don’t know. However, my interest was piqued when I read the description.

This is one of those books that is able to transport the reader easily into the times and lives of the characters. The writing is such that it reflects the speech and thoughts of the characters, and although this made for some colorful and somewhat grammatically incorrect writing, I enjoyed it and thought that it made the book feel authentic. The story itself was just…wow. I mean, every time I read good historical fiction I learn something new—and this is one of the reasons I love it. I would have never been able to understand what it would have been like to be rubber tapping in the jungle (and obviously there are lots of similar experiences when one might be extracting other jungle resources) had I read this book. It was well-researched and had that air of truth around it that only comes when truth is stranger than fiction. Now I’m not saying that I have never read anything like this, because indeed I have actually read one of the books on her resources list (The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard), and that one was shocking as well. It’s just so hard to imagine what other peoples’ lives are like until you experience them, and most of them are experienced through books. I wholeheartedly believe that those who read and those who are exposed to other worlds and other lives through reading are by far the most sympathetic and understanding human beings around. How could they not be? Even if you don’t agree with what you have read, the exposure alone is huge.

This novel moved along at a good little clip. The story was interesting, and the main characters were pretty well developed. The peripheral characters were very obviously peripheral, and I think a lot more detail could have been given to them, but since this is only the first book in the series I think that could be upcoming. The writing and story weren’t completely tight, but I’m chalking that up to inexperience and I think that as the series goes along this probably won’t be an issue.

If you’re looking for an interesting historical look into something that isn’t covered extensively (like, say, WWII) I think this is a good book to go with. The story is good, it moves along quickly, and I think you’ll definitely learn something.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language in this book, much of it is Irish slang, and there is also some light and vague discussion of sex.

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