“It was Clementine, the old italian hag who passed herself off as a fortune-teller, who started it all.”
Jack and Baxter, Irish American boys need to get away from work on the docks and have themselves an adventure, get past their Da’s passing, at least according to the hag. Their plan is to make a fortune themselves, by tapping rubber trees in the South American rainforest, dangerous dream for men who barely have a pot to piss in. They cannot imagine the deadly competition nor all the danger besides human beings that awaits them.
Readied with provisions such as food and medicine (one to prevent malaria in particular) they will travel with a team of men, make camp, build their own abode, quickly learn the tree tapping process with little time to spare before the wet season. Jack and Bax are figuring out that money won’t be as quick to come as they had imagined, that one season isn’t even enough to even out expenses. But if someone as rich and successful as Carnegie himself said the ‘best opportunity today is in rubber’, then the brothers from Hoboken, New Jersey are on their way to untold wealth! It isn’t long before they suffer the threats, from fish( those that can swim up any human orifice), caiman, piranhas, vampire bats with a liking for toes, mosquitoes and other insects. Soon everyone is ‘verbalizing their fears’, such as the story of the river snake that rules it.
Then there are the ‘savages’, the caboclos whom some of the men would as soon as shoot then see alive and ‘wasting space’. Afterall, what good are people who can’t read or write, know nothing of the civilized world? The caboclos rely as much on their tapping season, desperate to bring in enough rubber to support their own families. The canoes too are frightening , floating along at nearly surface level, vulnerable to creatures in the water as those threatening from the land. If illness overtake the men, they are likely to be left behind like garbage. The elements are not friendly, particularly to men who are laboring to the point of exhaustion against nature’s clock, the workload heavier to shoulder as men deal with fevers. Storms rush at them, taking down bridges. Will they ever be able to complete their tasks? Then, the jaguar is near, the howl of monkeys can wake a man from dreams dripping from the sweat of fear.
The brothers become captives of the Gha- ru which for me was the best part of the entire novel. The Chief of the tribe holds their fate in his hands, and the women are full of nothing but love and nurturing. They are one with the hostile environment, the land and it’s animals, a fruitful existence for the Gha-ru. Their mysterious healing ways could be salvation, but they could also be the brother’s doom.
Will the brothers survive, return to their mother with untold riches, or will this really be a story before they each die? One thing is certain, they underestimated their journey and the savageness of the Amazon. It isn’t the things you expect alone that become obstacles, but the wild things you couldn’t fathom.
Before We Died is a fascinating historical fiction about the rubber industry, when you think about the products we take for granted its wild to know people have lost their lives to secure it. It’s not often modern folks examine the things we surround ourselves with and think about how they were produced, on whose sweat and blood. Just look into the history, it certainly destroyed indigenous societies and forced untold numbers to work, because any resistance was met with violence or death. Of course as with anything in high demand, it brought immigrants and cities grew as well. (Tires, pencils, Tupperware, latex, shoes,the list of rubber products is long) Rubber barons made a killing (literally). This novel takes you into the start of the boom, with the story of Jack and Bax, a telling of why and how some men took on the challenge of rubber tapping. This is the first in the River series.
Publication Date: September 15, 2018
Five Directions Press