Crooked plow by Itamar Vieira Junior

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Wrapped in a dirty cloth, in a battered suitcase hidden under their grandmother’s bed, two young sisters discover a gleaming knife – a discovery that leads to an appalling event that changes their lives forever. The trauma sees 7 year old Bibiana and 6 year old Belonisia linked forever, much like the older twins Crispina and Crispiniana living in their village. In fact the older pair become a kind of moral lesson warning of the consequences if ever there should be discord between them.

The trauma with the knife begins Vieira Junior’s story woven with Brazilian folklore and magic. It is a knife with a history that is only gradually uncovered, and its significance is played out at the very end. It is a story of a family of traditional healers, the girls’ grandmother is a ‘catcher of babies’, and their father is the renowned healer Zeca Chapeu Grande who becomes ritually inhabited by encantados or spirits. The people of their village are all poor, struggling to survive as unpaid labourers on the plantations of the wealthy landowners.

Although slavery was abolished in Brazil in the late 19th century, there was little change for the plantation workers. They were allowed to build temporary mud huts on the land most had inhabited their whole lives, and they were allowed to grow their own vegetables on the one day they had off from working in the fields. But if their little home crops became too bountiful, they were likely to be expropriated by greedy landowners who claimed ownership of everything the land produced. Fear of being driven out left the workers powerless, afraid to protest.

Vieira Junior’s novel draws in the reader with the story of Bibiana and Belonisia and the magical traditions and beliefs, at the same time exposing the harshness of the peasant life on the land, and social inequalities that persist today. Crooked plow’s unique mixture of magical and social realism has won it Brazil’s three biggest literary awards. This translated version by Johnny Lorenz now brings it to an even wider readership.

Themes: Brazil, Exploitation, Magical realism, Traditional beliefs, Workers' rights.

Helen Eddy