Two new historical novels, both featuring protagonists who are immersed in sewing and slavery, caught my eye recently: Stand the Storm, the second novel by Breena Clarke, takes us back to the District of Columbia during the Civil War; and The Seamstress, a first novel, by Brazilian-born Chicago resident Frances de Pontes Peebles, is set in Brazil in the 1930s.
The main character of Stand the Storm is a former slave named Gabriel Coats, who has small hands and a knack for sewing. It's a skill he picked up from his mother back on the Virginia plantation, and he uses it to help buy his freedom.
Gabriel's struggle to become his own man and make a life for himself in the city is the focus of the novel, but there is a great deal going on around him. The Civil War is under way, and Washington, D.C., is in turmoil. Slaves are attempting to make their way north to freedom, and the Confederate army is advancing on the city.
As the nation wars around him, Gabriel practices his trade, first helping a Jewish tailor, then eventually setting out on his own. In his new, tentative freedom, he works for money as well as respect, crafting the many small stitches that hold a life together. Likewise, Stand the Storm knits the reader into the lives of former slaves in momentous times, one delicate, painstaking sentence at a time.
As it happens, two sewing sisters stand at the center of Peebles' appealing first novel, The Seamstress. Emilia and Luzia Coelho are country girls and gifted seamstresses, raised by their widowed aunt in a hilly hamlet in the drought-ridden region of northeast Brazil.
When a band of anti-government cowboy rebels, known as cangaceiros, raids their hamlet, Luzia is willingly abducted by the band's leader, a scar-faced peasant rebel known as the Hawk. She becomes seamstress to the rebels and falls in love with the Hawk.
Emilia, meanwhile, enters into a marriage of convenience with a visiting city boy and moves to the coast of Brazil. As romantic as the story sounds — and Peebles has made an agonizingly romantic story in the best sense of the word — The Seamstress takes place against the political turmoil of modernizing Brazil and the growing threat of Nazism in Europe.
It's odd how two books about characters who sew turn out to be about characters who want their freedom, but good stories don't grow out of thin air. They begin with a writer's keen sense of narrative and sharp sense of observation. As Sewing Annie, the mother of Gabriel Coats, says of her tailor son, "He was born to this work, and he is the better of most at it ..." She could be speaking about this pair of talented new writers.