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October 25, 2021

Joan Schweighardt's Playlist for Her Novels "The Rivers Trilogy"

River Aria by Joan Schweighardt

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Joan Schweighardt's The Rivers Trilogy effortlessly spans decades and continents.

In her own words, here is Joan Schweighardt's Book Notes music playlist for her story collection The Rivers Trilogy:

Playlist for The Rivers Trilogy

The South American rubber boom was a little known and rather amazing historical event. People had been using rubber for hoses and shoe soles for years, but after the invention of the automobile, the need for rubber became urgent. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, entrepreneurs from all over Europe descended on the small fishing village of Manaus, Brazil—located in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest—and started recruiting men to go into the deep jungle to tap rubber trees, an exceedingly dangerous job which cost many men their lives. The entrepreneurs-turned-rubber barons were making a fortune, and they spent some of it transforming Manaus into a grand European-style city, replete with a gorgeous opera house. Then, in 1913, the rubber boom came to an abrupt end, thanks to the fact that rubber trees previously planted on plantations in British territories in Southeast Asia had begun to produce, and the rich rubber barons left as quickly as they’d first appeared.

The Rivers Trilogy features three novels inspired by the South American rubber boom.

The main characters in Before We Died, the first of the books in the trilogy, are two young Irish American brothers who leave their jobs in Hoboken, New Jersey to go to Manaus in 1908 to seek their fortune in the rubber industry. In Book Two, Gifts for the Dead, one of the brothers returns home, but rather than picking up the pieces of his own life, he finds himself living the life that was meant for his brother. In the last book, River Aria, the daughter of that brother—and the European/Amerindian woman he spent one night with in Manaus years earlier—travels from Brazil to New York to work in the Metropolitan Opera House, albeit in the sewing room.

From Before We Died

Coax Me sung by Billy Murray

There is a backyard party the night everything changes for Jack and Baxter Hopper. Jack will never forget hearing “Coax Me” playing from the hosts’ Victrola, the ladies all swaying together, their arms linked, singing along at the top of their lungs, the men standing in a circle nearby, drinking and laughing. Baxter Sr. was to have been at the party too, but he never shows up. Not long after, Jack and Baxter decide to travel to South America, to become rubber tappers—and to deal with their grief regarding their father’s untimely death.

From Gifts for the Dead

The Willow Song sung by Sonya Yoncheva, from the opera Otello

Crazy Blues sung by Mamie Smith

Tonight You Belong to Me sung by Irving Kaufman

Misfortunes happen deep in the rainforest during the time Jack and Baxter are there, and when Jack returns home a few years later, without his brother, he is reluctant to talk about them. He wants to return to the rainforest as soon as he can, to right all wrongs, but the war (WWI) makes it impossible to travel. Years later, when he does finally go, Nora, the woman who was once his brother’s fiancé, insists on accompanying him. It is while in Manaus that Jack learns he has a daughter—from when he was there was there previously, almost twenty years earlier—and that she will soon be traveling to New York, to work in the sewing room of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Due to a twist of fate opportunity, Jack’s daughter, Estela, has been studying opera with a master in the impoverished village of Manaus. Before Jack and Nora sail for home, Jack goes to the opera house vestibule, where the instructor holds his lessons, and spies on his daughter during a rehearsal for Otello and gets to hear her sing Desdemona’s “The Willow Song.” Everything has been revealed by then, and there is much animosity between Jack and Nora as they make their way back to New York on a ship. But as the ship’s captain reminds them over the loudspeakers out on the deck, as they prepare to leave the Amazon River and head out to sea, they will soon be returning to Prohibition, so “drink, dance and be merry while you can.” Eventually Jack and Nora join the other dancers on the deck, dancing to “Crazy Blues,” and then “Tonight You Belong To Me.”

From River Aria

Fados, bandleader Mirena Herzog

Emboladas various musicians

Jelly Roll Blues performed by Jelly Roll Morton

O Patria Mia sung by Anna Netrebko

Swanee sung by Al Jolson

Everybody Loves My Baby sung by Eva Taylor with Louis Armstrong on Cornet

I Come With Golden Sunshine sung by Natalie Almeter from a production of the opera Hänsel und Gretel

River Aria is full of music. Even before the master instructor comes to Manaus to teach a handful of river brats opera and much more, Estela, one of those brats, had learned to love music, which is infused into daily life: Brazilian folk songs, the fados that her mother and aunts sing as they repair fishing nets on the docks, loud, fast emboladas, desafios (competive songs duels performed at festivals), and more.

The first time Estela sings at the Metropolitan Opera—not on stage but in the sewing room, as a result of a dare put forth to her by the department manager—it is “O Patria Mia,” a song that has the whole room in tears by the time she’s done. As Estela says, “What was I thinking, singing such a song? We were all immigrants and we were all homesick. I had been singing the very sentiments that lived daily in the hearts of everyone in the room! How could I have failed to realize?”

It will be a long time before Estela sings again at work, but in the meantime, her cousin JoJo, with whom she has traveled from Brazil to New York, has found a job delivering “goods” by boat for the owner of a speakeasy. One of the perks of his job is that he can spend as much time as he wants in the speakeasy, where food and drinks are always on the house. He brings Estela with him a few times, and having heard that she studied opera, JoJo’s boss invites her to sing with the band. She chooses two songs, “Swanee” and “Everybody Loves My Baby.” The next time she accompanies JoJo to the speakeasy, she sings “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?”

Finally, and as a result of some suspicious circumstances, Estela gets a chance to sing a single aria with the Met performers, though at an off-season venue in Albany instead of in New York City. The aria she sings, “I Come With Golden Sunshine,” is from the opera Hänsel und Gretel.

Joan Schweighardt is the author of nine novels, two memoirs, two children’s books and various magazine articles, including work in Parabola Magazine. She is a regular contributor to Occhi Magazine, for which she interviews writers, artists and filmmakers. In addition to her own projects, she has worked as an editor and ghostwriter for private and corporate clients for more than 25 years. She also had her own independent publishing company from 1999 to 2005. Several of her titles won awards, including a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers,” a ForeWord Magazine “Best Fiction of the Year,” and a Borders “Top Ten Read to Me.” And she has agented books for other writers, with sales to St. Martin’s, Red Hen, Wesleyan University Press and more.

Her most recent work is the Rivers Trilogy—Before We Died, Gifts for the Dead and River Aria—which move back and forth between the New York metro area and the South American rainforests between 1908 and 1929.

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